At Facebook’s FAIR labs, researchers are working hard to put AI to use. But, faced with competition from Google’s DeepMind, the social media giant is on its back foot
Beat Google- Big black screens full of code litter a secure corner office in a WeWork building in Montreal, Canada. The monitors are piled in side-by-side, one on top of the other, and there’s barely enough room for the 20 or so research scientists and engineers, who work for the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) group. “We’re moving to a new office soon,” says Joelle Pineau, head of FAIR’s Montreal lab and an associate professor at McGill University. Pineau’s lab has grown from four people to 20 since it was established a little over a year ago, and it isn’t the only FAIR lab expanding rapidly.
The FAIR group as a whole — tasked with advancing the field of AI — has grown to almost 200 researchers worldwide since it was founded by Facebook’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun in 2013, and is set to double by 2020. Its mission: to develop the smartest machines possible. The research group, which openly publishes almost all of its work, wants to build AI that can see, hear, and communicate with humans seamlessly. If you have a quick chat with Siri, Alexa, Google or Cortana, you’ll quickly realise that there’s a long way to go. Facebook’s own virtual AI assistant, “M”, was shut down in January.
FAIR’s researchers — now spread across Menlo Park, New York, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Paris, London, and Tel Aviv — are focusing on areas such as robotics, computer vision, natural language processing, language translation, and games. The view is that every incremental advance in each of these fields helps towards developing AI with human level intelligence. Recently, researchers at FAIR have taught an AI to create a recipe and list a set of ingredients from simply looking at a photograph of a meal. FAIR researchers are also exploring how AI can be used to speed up MRI scans up by to 10 times.
It all started with a dinner. In 2013, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg realised he needed to develop better AI systems to enable more sophisticated product features on its social network. Initially, he looked into acquiring a discrete London AI lab called DeepMind, which had been backed by tech billionaire and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, as well as Elon Musk and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn. But there was another tech heavyweight interested in DeepMind: Google.