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October 18, 2016

Facebook AI Efforts Seen Lagging

(Narasimhan M V/Shutterstock)

Facebook’s artificial intelligence efforts, particularly algorithms used for automation of applications such as news feeds, are coming under heavy fire from at least one critic who argues AI “is emerging as a major weakness for Facebook.”

“There are signs that Facebook is really struggling with automation as it is clear that its algorithms are inferior to those used by Google, Baidu, Yandex, Microsoft, Apple and almost everybody else,” asserted Richard Windsor, an analyst with Edison Investment Research.

“This will become a major problem as we are convinced that differentiation in digital ecosystems over the next 10 years is likely to be largely determined by AI driving how intuitive, rich and useful digital life services become,” Windsor added.

The market watcher emphasized that the sheer scale of the social media giant’s active user base raises the stakes as it challenges Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and others for a larger share of online advertising revenue. “Facebook simply cannot afford to do very much manually,” the analyst asserted. “Every indication we have seen points to the fact that as soon as Facebook removes people from the equation, things go badly wrong.”

Among the symptoms are shortfalls in the Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) news feed and automated bots used in its Messenger chat service that Windsor deemed “so stupid as to be effectively useless.” He added that testing of the news feed by the Washington Post in June revealed that removal of human editors from the curation process resulted in fake news stories being posted as “trending” items.

The report prompted Facebook to announce it had tweaked the algorithm that helps populate its News Feed. In a statement, the company said: “Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook.” Hence, it announced a “change to News Feed ranking to help make sure you don’t miss stories from your friends.”

That explanation isn’t cutting much ice with industry analysts like Windsor. Allowing for recent charges of news bias against Facebook, he countered: “Facebook needs to be as neutral as it can and while its AI throws out spurious stories and ignores others, it can easily be accused of bias when all is really happening is bad algorithms.”

Human curators could help spot errors like posting phony news or biased news accounts, Windsor noted, adding: “Put simply, this is another example of how Facebook’s AI is not up to the task of automation, meaning that an awful lot more work needs to be done.”

To be fair, other observers have noted that Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) AI development, particularly the deep learning tools behind its Siri voice recognition system, also are not setting the machine-learning world on fire. One Apple critic notes that the company’s AI efforts are hampered by its excessive product focus and secretive research efforts.

As for Facebook, we await its response to Windsor’s critical analysis. We’ll update this story if and when the company responds to our request for comment.