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January 7, 2016

Do Smartphones Dream About Facebook?

Artificial intelligence, also known as AI, has been sending its all-knowing tendrils slowly but surely onto the World Wide Web.  Many of the largest tech companies are arduously working to be the first to perfect this technology so they can corner the market. The big players include GoogleAppleFacebookMicrosoftIBM, and Amazon. Google has been in the headlines a lot recently. At first, its foray online was tenuous at best and comical at worst when Google created an AI that it turned loose to try to make sense of the images it encountered.  Hoping to find a workaround for one of the search engine’s biggest lapses, which makes search engine spiders blind to images and videos, the attempt resulted in hilarity when Google’s creation began to morph images as it tried to make sense of queries posed about them.


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When asked to display a picture of a dumbbell, for example, it created a representation of the dumbbell, complete with the arm holding it.  If this were the only aberration exhibited by the AI it would be considered a humorous anomaly.  However, this proved to only be the tip of the AI iceberg.  Many of the requests for images put to Google’s neural net returned bizarre pictures that produced chimeras that were one part animal and one part object.  (If you want to see some truly bizarre creations, go to this link to see the blog post on entitled, Google’s AI Can Dream and Here’s What it Looks Like.

Aside from answering Isaac Asimov’s question about if Androids dream of Electric Sheep, what Google may have inadvertently done was to create the world’s first robotic Picasso.   What they also did was unleash the same image recognition facility that causes people to see a Man in the Moon, or recognizable patterns in clouds.  The difference is that not only can Google’s neural net find the shape of a pig in a cumulous cloud, it can also “See” visual patterns in sound.


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Undiscouraged by the psychedelic tendencies of its creation, Google then let loose its AI on everything from its digital assistant, called Google Now, to search engine tasks, the latter of which has been dubbed RankBrain. Using what it learned from its foray into image recognition, Google’s latest AI iteration has been tasked with making sense of queries posed to its search engine, particularly long-tailed queries.  The best way to understand the purpose of RankBrain is to read this a short paragraph posted on The system helps Google deal with the 15 percent of queries a day it gets which its systems have never seen before. For example, it’s adept at dealing with ambiguous queries, like, “What’s the title of the consumer at the highest level of a food chain?” And RankBrain’s usage of AI means it works differently than the other technologies in the search engine.

RankBrain is different from traditional search engine algorithms because it “learns” from experience.  While it isn’t yet ready to pass the Turing Test, where an AI is indistinguishable from a human when conversing with it, it appears to be on the right track. RankBrain has for the past few month been asked to deal with the 15 percent of queries a day Google gets which its systems have trouble deciphering.  And while it doesn’t exactly “converse” with search engine users, it has already proven 10 percent more efficient at guessing which pages on Google would rank on top.  (Not bad for a four-month-old.)

A senior Google scientist, Greg Corrado, said in the few months it has been deployed, RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query. Google’s CEO Sundar Pinchai also admitted, “Machine learning is a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing.”

RankBrain could currently be described as the tail that wags the Google’s dog, but there are a number of tech analysts that think AI is going to take on a larger portion of search engine duties for the world’s most popular search engine.  There are also several who think this might not be a good thing.


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In this blog post by entitled, “Google’s RankBrain – 9 Industry Experts Weigh In,” Jack Clark said,RankBrain cannot learn on its own yet. It needs to be retrained by engineers at the moment. But what happens when algorithms are unleashed on the web that can learn on the fly based on the billions of queries being performed each day globally? When that happens, not even Google’s engineers will fully understand how each algorithm works.”

That makes me feel more than slightly uneasy about giving up control of the Internet to a thinking machine.  Especially when the Internet is wired into nearly everything that humans do on a day-to-day basis.  Now some people would say that I am taking this view to the extreme.  I mean, RankBrain is only a tool being employed on one search engine, albeit it a search engine that dominates search.  Taking the alarmist view of “Today the Internet, tomorrow the world” is going a bit too far, right?  Not if you ask several public figures, such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk their thoughts.

Well-known British scientist Stephen Hawking has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence. He told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” His warning came in response to a question about a revamp of the technology he uses to communicate, which involves a basic form of AI.

Tesla and SpaceX  CEO and billionaire Elon Musk phrased it more bluntly, saying, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” He also admitted that he “invests in companies working on artificial intelligence, just to be able to keep an eye on the technology.”

This attitude is far from paranoid — a number of other major players, including Facebook and Microsoft are also investing heavily in AI.


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Facebook for more than a year has been quietly building a project called Facebook AI Research, which it plans to use to make sense of the tidal wave of text, photos and videos housed on its social net.  Boasting well-funded research teams in Menlo Park, New York and Paris, its espoused aim is to,“work openly with and invest in the AI research community in France, the EU, and beyond as we strive to make meaningful progress in these fields.” Facebook’s director of research, Professor Yann LeCun, one of the most prominent figures in Deep Learning research, stated in September that, “One of the dreams we have had for years is some sort of intelligent agent that seems clever enough to do a lot of tasks, including organizing meetings with friends and accessing information that might take you an hour or two on Google.”

Facebook, as part of its efforts, recently launched a virtual assistant called “M” — an obvious response to Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana.  The difference with M is that it was created with AI from the outset. “What we are hoping to do is take this digital assistant idea to the next level. If you think about Siri, Cortana, Google Now – most of the answers they provide are scripted. Someone has imagined the possible answers and figured out a tree of possibilities. If you go outside of the script, the machine responds with a joke or tries to get out of it. All of its behavior is programmed by humans, but what we are trying to do with M is test the ability of a machine to learn.” —  Professor Yann LeCun

The social network has been spending a whole lot of time and money acquiring talent and AI firms in its quest to enhance machine intelligence.  In 2014, it spent $40 million to acquire Vicarious FPC, an artificial intelligence firm whose avowed goal is to “replicate theneocortex, “which is the part of the brain that sees, controls body functions, understands language and processes math.  Not only did Facebook go in on the deal, the buyout was split between it, Apple Computer and none other than Elon Musk.

Can Microsoft Reinvent Itself Via AI?

In an effort to not be outdone, Microsoft has also been pushing a pile of chips into the AI pot.  Entering the fray on two fronts, machine learning and what is referred to as “invisible interface technology,” Microsoft is looking to reinvent the way we access technology. Yoram Yaacovi, who heads up Microsoft’s research and development center in Israel, said in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2014 that, “User interface started with the command prompt, moved to graphics, then touch, and then gestures. It’s now moving to invisible UI, where there is nothing to operate. The tech around you understands you and what you want to do” — and that’s what people expect, he said. “We’re putting this at the forefront of our efforts.”

The last comment begs the question: “What if your device understands the request, but fails to comply?  In the sci-fi classic, 2001 a Space Odyssey, HAL, the artificial intelligence that controlled the spaceship Discovery decided that the best way to complete its mission was to kill the human crew that manned it. Mirroring that sentiment, Elon Musk recently quipped on stage that a future AI system tasked with eliminating spam might decide the best way to accomplish that aim was to eliminate humans.

It is not known if this is just a case of life imitating art, or if it is something we need to take a hard look at. But the bottom line is that AI will soon worm its way into every Internet-enabled device on the planet.  Since everything from appliances we have in our homes and offices to the vehicles we drive, or are driven or flown by are connected to the World Wide Web, only time will tell if having a “brain in the box” is a good thing or a bad thing.

All I can say is, I have enough trouble trying to keep my Smartphone from rewriting every text I post.  What really causes me to lose sleep at night is worrying about how long it’s going to be before I’m forced to say, “Open the garage door, Hal.”


Carl Weiss has been working the web to win since 1995 and has helped hundreds of companies increase their online results. He is president of W Squared Media and co-host of the weekly radio show Working the Web to Win which airs Tuesdays at 4pm Eastern on Click here to get his latest book "Working The Web to Win: When it comes to online marketing, you can't win, if you don't know how to play the game!".