Facebook’s automated conscience


Last week, Wired‘s Cade Metz gave us a peek into the Facebook Behavior Modification Laboratory, which is more popularly known as the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) Laboratory. Run by Yann LeCun, an NYU data scientist, the lab is developing a digital assistant that will act as your artificial conscience and censor. Perched on your shoulder like one of those cartoon angels, it will whisper tsk tsk into your ear when your online behavior threatens to step beyond the bounds of propriety.

[LeCun] wants to build a kind of Facebook digital assistant that will, say, recognize when you’re uploading an embarrassingly candid photo of your late-night antics. In a virtual way, he explains, this assistant would tap you on the shoulder and say: “Uh, this is being posted publicly. Are you sure you want your boss and your mother to see this?”

It’s Kubrick’s HAL refashioned as Mr. Buzzkill. “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

The secret to the technology is an AI technique known as machine learning, a statistical modeling tool through which a computer gains a kind of experiential knowledge of the world. In this case, Facebook would, by monitoring your uploaded words and photos, be able to read your moods and intentions. The company would, for instance, be able to “distinguish between your drunken self and your sober self.” That would enable Facebook to “guide you in directions you may not go on your own.” Says LeCun: “Imagine that you had an intelligent digital assistant which would mediate your interaction with your friends.”

Yes, imagine.

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

If and when Facebook perfects its behavior modification algorithms, it would be a fairly trivial exercise to expand their application beyond the realm of shitfaced snapshots. That photo you’re about to post of the protest rally you just marched in? That angry comment about the president? That wild thought that just popped into your mind? You know, maybe those wouldn’t go down so well with the boss.

“And as our senses have gone outside us,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1962, while contemplating the ramifications of what he termed a universal, digital nervous system, “Big Brother goes inside.”

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here. A full listing of posts can be found here. Also see: Automating the feels.

4 thoughts on “Facebook’s automated conscience

  1. Brutus

    A similar innovation was previewed where an automobile driver would have to speak to the car’s IA, programmed to learn to distinguish between drunken, slurred speech and regular intonation, to prove he/she is not drunk before being able to turn the ignition. Both of these innovations give behavior modification as decidedly fascist aspect, but of course, they’re to keep us safe, so they’re coming no matter what.

  2. Linux Guru

    What is a “data” scientist? Is data mining like gold mining? Its nice they found a way to apply the R&D tax credit to a social media company. Zuckerberg should move the department to Ireland to get a completely free tax writeoff.

  3. Linux Guru

    Statistical modeling is the illegitimate step-child of neural networks. Back in the 90s, training NN to do optical character recognition and image filtering were all the rage. Every university had at least one or two MS thesis on it every year. Later it was found they were too slow so SM became the choice for recognition problems. The question is why would FB pay money to develop it in house when there are two decades of prepackaged third party solutions out there already?
    I am not surprised – being gay – I saw this coming. About six months ago I noticed more friend request profile showing up with pics of Latin guys in g-strings each time I logged in to FB. Each day I see my FBF posting more pics of man booty and T&A. I guess Zuckerberg wants to automate the image filter process rather than pay people to watch soft porn all day! LOL ;)

Comments are closed.