Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa — whether you realize it or not, artificial intelligence is basically a member of your family. And Facebook isn’t about to concede the race to be the first robot at your dinner table, which is why it introduced “M” last year. Billed as a personal assistant that lives in the Messenger app, M is supposed to do lots of cool stuff, like make restaurant reservations or recommend gifts for your family, but M (and, really, all consumer AI) has a hard time understanding language.
At the moment, M can fill in the missing word in a sentence 80-percent of the time — so long as the word is an article or a preposition, like “the” and “to.” Once it gets into nouns — and names in particular — things get a lot less successful. Here’s an example: Given the choice between Jennifer and Bob in the sentence, “_______ went to the baby shower,” an AI is going to be flummoxed. Even if it recognizes that Jennifer is a woman and Bob is a man, it’s unlikely to grasp the complicated gender dynamics involved in who goes to baby showers. But you know that, 100 times out of 100, the correct answer is Jennifer because Bob is going to do everything in his power to not spend his Sunday surrounded by squealing women who have had too much champagne. Advantage, you (and also Bob).
Facebook’s solution to M’s noun problem? Your kid’s bedtime stories. The AI is consuming classics like Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow because, according to Facebook’s own researchers, children’s books “guarantee a clear narrative structure.” That’s another way of saying that your kid is smarter than Facebook’s AI, too. By feeding it the classics, though, Facebook’s researchers are seeing a 50-percent increase in M’s facility with nouns, and it’s kindergarten teacher is thrilled.
According to Zuckerberg himself, “We still have a long way to go before machines can understand language the way people do, but this research takes us closer to building helpful services like M.” Maybe someday soon, it will read those books to your kid for you.