Facebook told employees on Tuesday that it’s developing a tool to summarize news articles so users won’t have to read them, as well as a neural sensor to detect people’s thoughts and translate them into action.
Those announcements and product demos were part of an end-of-year, company-wide meeting at the social networking giant, whose year has been pockmarked by controversy, employee discontent, and multiple state and federal antitrust lawsuits. BuzzFeed News obtained audio of the meeting, which was not public but was broadcast virtually to thousands of employees.
Led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the meeting featured a slew of pre-recorded company executives, some of whom called 2020 a trying year as the company weathered a global pandemic and the backlash of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans.
Despite the turmoil, the company’s leaders said the social networking company has moved forward, adding some 20,000 new workers this year. With more people around the world at home, the company has experienced record usage, said Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. Traffic throughout March was akin to New Year’s Day, typically Facebook’s busiest period of the year, he added.
“Our investments in technology aren’t just about keeping our services running,” he said, comparing the speed of Facebook’s improvements in messaging to the advancement of the COVID-19 vaccine. “We are paving the way for breakthrough new experiences that, without hyperbole, will improve the lives of billions.”
Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois declined to comment for this story.
Among the advancements touted by Schroepfer were the company’s commitments to artificial intelligence, which has often been seen internally as a panacea to the social network’s ills. He noted that Facebook’s data centers were receiving “new systems” that would make them 10 to 30 times faster and allow Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) to essentially train itself.
“And it is actually the key tool we are using right now today in production to fight hate speech, misinformation, and honestly the hardest possible content problems we face,” Schroepfer said, noting a company talking point that Facebook now detects 95% of all hate speech on the platform.
In recent weeks, departing Facebook employees have pushed back on the idea that AI could cure the company’s content moderation problems. While Facebook employs thousands of third-party human moderators, it’s made it clear that AI is how it plans to patrol its platform in the future, an idea that concerns workers.
“AI will not save us,” wrote Nick Inzucchi, whose December goodbye note was obtained by BuzzFeed News. “The implicit vision guiding most of our integrity work today is one where all human discourse is overseen by perfect, fair, omniscient robots owned by [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg. This is clearly a dystopia, but one so deeply ingrained we hardly notice it any more.”
Another departing employee estimated earlier this month that, even with artificial intelligence and third-party moderators, the company was “deleting less than 5% of all of the hate speech posted to Facebook.” Facebook later pushed back on that claim.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the company also unveiled an AI assistant tool called “TLDR,” which could summarize news articles in bullet points so that a user wouldn’t have to read the full piece. Named after the online acronym for “too long, didn’t read,” the tool supposedly could also provide audio narration, as well as a vocal assistant to answer.
News of the tool, which was first shared by BuzzFeed News, did not sit well with members of the media who have been frustrated with Facebook’s absorption of large swaths of online advertising and creation of a platform where news competes against misinformation and untrustworthy sources. In Australia, lawmakers have forced Facebook to pay media organizations for news, while in other parts of the world, the company has partnered with some “trusted” outlets, including BuzzFeed News, to pay for the use of their content.
“I feel sometimes like there is someone in FB HQ whose job is trying to come up with new ways of completely destroying any semblance of intelligence in America,” tweeted WNYC editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper.
Other projects announced or demoed by Schroepfer on Tuesday included a Star Trek-like universal translator and “Horizon,” a new virtual reality social network where users will be able to hang out with their avatars.
He also detailed a neural sensor to read commandments from people’s brains.
Having acquired neural interface startup CTRL Labs in 2019, Facebook demonstrated its progress in the field with a sensor that takes “neural signals coming from my brain, down my spinal cord along my arm, to my wrist” and allows a user to make a physical action. Schroepfer noted that it could be used for typing, holding a virtual object, or controlling a character in a video game.
“We all get the privilege of seeing the future because we are making it,” he said.
Still, Facebook’s chief technology officer seemed to anticipate any criticisms of the products — or past failures — by touting safety measures.
“We have to build responsibly to earn trust and the right to continue to grow,” he said. “It’s imperative that we get this right so that people around the world get all these amazing technologies… without experiencing the downsides.”