Facebook Is Tackling Its Problems With Machine Learning And Looking To London For Help

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Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook attends the Viva Tech startup and technology gathering at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on May 24, 2018 in Paris, France. The VivaTech exhibition brings together nearly 1,800 startups alongside the largest international groups. Photo by Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images.

Facebook has confirmed its purchase of Bloomsbury.ai, a London-based startup that’s developed a machine-learning tool to analyze and answer questions about unstructured text. With its staff of five, according to Pitchbook, Bloomsbury had raised $1.9 million to date and become a leading expert in natural language processing, Facebook said earlier this week. The acquisition underscores how Facebook is willing to looking outside its walls to regions teeming with AI expertise for the machine-learning solutions to some of its biggest challenges

Bloomsbury was spun out of the tech incubator Entrepreneur First, and the path to commercializing its research was still hazy when Facebook scooped it up, according to TechCrunch, which first reported that Mark Zuckerberg’s company was paying between $23 million and $30 million for the startup. 

Bloomsbury’s work is encapsulated in an application programming interface (API), called Cape, a service that third-party developers can use to answer questions about a text. 

Such a service is not unusual. Over in San Mateo, California, for instance, the startup Kyndi ($11.7 million raised, according to Pitchbook) has developed deep-learning software, written in an old programming language, that can answer questions about scientific documents. You can ask it if a certain technology has been “demonstrated in a laboratory setting,” for instance, even if those words don’t appear in the documentation, according to a report in the New York Times

Facebook’s interest in Bloomsbury might have more to do with the challenges of fake news. The company’s biggest draw was reportedly Sebastian Riedel, Bloomsbury.ai’s CTO, who has worked closely with Factmata, another London-based AI startup that’s built a news platform using machine-learning tools and human fact-checkers to weed out fake content. 

Factmata’s CEO Dhruv Ghulati, told Forbes that it’ll be challenging for Facebook and other social media companies to clean up fake news and bots because of how much has already been invested into their current infrastructure. 

“It’s almost like a cycle that doesn’t end,” says Ghulati, who also featured on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in technology list for 2018 and has raised $1 million from investors including billionaire Mark Cuban. He adds that companies built “from the ground up” to use both humans and machines, an approach known as “human in the loop” AI, to solve the fake news challenge, would do so more effectively than legacy players like Facebook.

The purchase of Bloomsbury.ai signified that Facebook believed there were software-based solutions to such problems, Ghulati added. “People are interested in the research required to solve some of these difficult issues,” he said.

Roy Azoulay, whose Oxford-based AI startup Serelay helps identify fake photos on social media streams like Twitter, says Facebook will need to employ multiple solutions to tackle fake news. “AI is not a magic bullet which will solve everything,” he told Forbes, adding that while it will play a significant role it parsing content, machine-learning systems will struggle to tackle fake photos and videos. 

But Azoulay doesn’t think Facebook needs to be replaced by a new, more trustworthy platform. Facebook can achieve a lot by “retrofitting” verification tools to its platform. 

That process could take years. Facebook said in January 2018 that it would overhaul its News Feed algorithm to re-prioritize content from family and friends, local news and trustworthy news sources in the site’s endless scroll. While it could build its own machine-learning tools to help trawl through its vast content, it will likely continue to look to startups like Bloomsbury for help (and talent) too. 

  

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