SAN FRANCISCO — Your phone is likely filled with hundreds of photos you’ve forgotten to share.
Facebook’s new Moments app scans those images for faces and matches them to your Facebook friends. You can then share the photos, which are grouped by occasion, directly with those people though the app.
It’s a neat trick and a fun tool for sharing group photos. It also happens to be a window into Facebook’s ambitious push into artificial intelligence.
Moments uses facial recognition technology, which was developed by Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) lab, a group of 50 researchers led by Yann LeCun, an expert in a type of machine learning called deep learning. Their techniques are being used for voice recognition, natural language processing, and detecting faces and objects in images.
The future of Facebook
“The one thing we’re missing is actually understanding what we’re showing to people,” said Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer.
If Facebook has a clearer idea of the content and context of posts, then it can create a smarter, more personalized version of your news feed. Some of FAIR’s face detection technology is already being used in Facebook and Instagram’s Layout app.
Facebook’s accessibility group is testing out new ways to use FAIR’s research to help blind users. It’s working on a prototype of a tool generates a text description of what’s in a photo. Someone using a screen reading program could know exactly who and what’s in an image, their location, maybe even their expressions.
“One of the core problems of the modern age is just how much information is out there,” said Schroepfer. “We suffer from this, we can’t actually pay attention to everything because we don’t have the time.”
AI could also help eventually automate posts by looking through, say, hundreds of baby photos and identifying the best one.
Eventually, Schroepfer sees us talking to Facebook like we do Siri, asking casual questions like “What’s going on with my grandkids this week?” AI will be crucial for developments like this.
Everyone’s competing for AI
Artificial intelligence is one of the next major battlefields for technology companies. Google, Microsoft, Apple and China’s Baidu are investing heavily in AI labs, and they are snatching up some of the best academic minds in the field. Facebook just opened a new Paris office in June.
AI is one of Facebook’s three big long-term technology bets. The company is also investing in virtual reality with Oculus, and is developing technology to bring Internet to underserved communities around the world.
Schroepfer says Facebook is not developing AI as a way to mine more data about people — a persistent worry among Facebook users who are perpetually uneasy about their information being used to sell ads.
Some of the features in Facebook’s Moments app are similar to Google’s new Photos app, which launched last month. Google has face recognition, but also uses impressive image recognition tools to search photos by keywords.
Another difference is that Google has been careful to avoid the phrase “artificial intelligence” when describing Google Photos.
Artificial intelligence is a controversial area. Sentient computers are regularly responsible for the end of humanity in movies and books. Respected minds like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned against its dangers.
“Were there ever to be concerns, we could have a constructive dialog,” said Schroepfer. “I think the compound positive effect on humanity is going to be huge. I think the applications for Facebook are really clear and obvious.”
Today, the application seems deceptively small. Recognizing your friends’ faces for sharing pictures isn’t exactly Skynet or Her. But it could be the start of a major shift in how we interact with our technology.