Facebook Are Taking Another Run At Conversational AI

Facebook might end up being the real-life Skynet, I'm just going to come right out and say it. I mean, imagine if they introduced some kind of AI overlord to manage all their data, only for it to become self-aware. Skynet launched nuclear missiles all over the world, but the Facebook rendition would know all your secrets, emotional hangups and deepest, darkest fears. Remember that scene from Mean Girls when Regina reveals the 'Burn Book' to the rest of the school? Imagine that on a global scale.

Hysteria aside, Facebook are noticeably fixated on AI, for better or for worse, and a great deal of their efforts seem to be focused on making it more 'convincing'. Voice commands have been around for a while and they're still a few shades shorts of convenient. Siri will save you a few seconds if you want to open an app or check your voicemail, and Alexa spares you the drudgery of walking around your house and turning things on/off, but it's hardly essential, and it's certainly not 'conversational'. All you're ever saying is a variation on the theme of 'do the thing;.

Facebook seem intent on changing that, and 'ParlAI' (get it?) is their latest milestone. Basically, they've given AI programmers a syllabus of sample dialogue and research results to teach chatbots to converse more convincingly. Amazon's Mechanical Turk marketplace is also directly linked, giving the programmers a direct line to living, breathing humans who can test and evaluate the bots as they are developed.

According to developers, the principle idea with ParlAI is to bridge the gap between chatbots which serve a practical purpose, like Siri, and those which just natter, like Microsoft's ill-fated Tay. As the name suggests, Facebook want people to have an engaging back-and-forth with ParlAI chatbots, not only being able to ask it to, say, check the weather, but also exchange ideas and just generally have a two-way conversation.

For instance, if you say to Siri "I need cheering up", it replies with "I'm sorry", but presumably ParlAI would be able to provide some suggestions for things which would cheer you up, or even ask you what's bothering you. That's a surface level example though, really and truly ParlAI is intended as a way to improve the process by which all AI is trained, rather than creating amusing little distractions.

Ultimately, the idea is that your house/phone/computer can be equipped with a digital assistant which handles everything from your morning schedule to asking how your day was when you get home, and actually know what you're talking about when you respond. In order to reach that level, first we have to be comfortable conversing with a machine.

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