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It’s increasingly hard to tell where Facebook ends and where “real life” begins, or if there’s such a thing as being “on” or “off” the service anymore. Blame the stream, the infinite scroll. Blame the rotating list of trending topics that bloggers read, then instinctively cover in daily (hourly) attempts to placate the formless royal blue Venus Fly Trap. That ever-growing “Feed me!” attitude—that’s how you get stories about Chad Michael Murray in your feed, despite never having seen a single Chad Michael Murray movie, nor even really knowing who Chad Michael Murray is.
But Facebook’s algorithm has determined that its users (and you, in particular) care about Chad Michael Murray, and his wife, and their new baby. Depressing as it may be, Facebook is usually right, and its algorithm is stronger than just about anything these days. On Monday, the Pew Research Center released a study that claims 61 percent of millennials get their political news through Facebook, vastly more than any other news source. Take one step back and consider that it would be literally impossible for a candidate to win the 2016 presidential election without an official, verified, strategic presence on Facebook. Though he hasn’t formally joined the race, Jeb Bush’s campaign began December 16, 2014 at 9:59 a.m., the moment he published a Facebook note about it.
Facebook is more powerful today than it was yesterday. So, what does Facebook plan to do when it masters Artificial Intelligence?
The social media giant announced this morning that it will open an A.I. lab in Paris, expanding its current A.I. research team of more than 40 people in New York and Menlo Park, California. “It’s our hope that this research will ultimately help us make services like News Feed, photos and search even better and enable an entirely new set of ways to connect and share,” the company said in a statement.
Facebook’s facial recognition software turned heads when it first arrived, as it did its newsfeed, but it’s been a while since Facebook users have openly revolted against a major change to the service. Maybe that revolt is coming when the A.I. finally trickles out, or maybe we’ve simply surrendered. The present moment is dominated by paranoia about A.I., in general, from dramas like Ex Machina to kid-friendly films like Inside Out. And while the pervasive fear extends far beyond social networks (into, say, the connected home or the smartest computer only getting smarter), Facebook already represents the closest thing we have to Transhumanism at a mass scale.
Facebook’s seamless Instagram integration allows not only our best memories but our best filtered memories to be stored in the cloud in perpetuity. Accounts don’t easily go away after we die. Most of us no longer keep physical address books, but we know what cities and towns our Facebook friends live in. None of these observations are groundbreaking, but when it comes strictly to A.I., Facebook has a clear advantage over other developers: Facebook knows how we think both as humans (emotional impact, as measured by likes and shares) and as machines (location queries, time on site, number of refreshes per day). Facebook, better than anyone, knows how we ingest a new piece of stimuli and how we react to it. Facebook knows what keywords and emoticons we use, both on a micro and macro scale. Facebook knows that Jimmy Fallon and John Oliver reliably hold our attention. Facebook has direct, quantifiable metrics about various human emotions. Facebook knows that people like boobs.
When the above facts are taken together, and when the accompanying research is soon improved upon by Silicon Valley minds (with Silicon Valley salaries), Facebook’s A.I. game seems less about what do they want to do and more about, well, how much do they want to do?