Facebook buys British AI company to help it better understand human speech


Facebook has bought Bloomsbury AI, a British company specializing in natural language processing. The Bloomsbury team will join Facebook's London office, where they'll add their skills to the social network's growing artificial intelligence division.

"The Bloomsbury team has built a leading expertise in machine reading and understanding unstructured documents in natural language in order to answer any question," Facebook said in a statement on its Academics page.

"Their expertise will strengthen Facebook’s efforts in natural language processing research, and help us further understand natural language and its applications."

Why AI?

Facebook has a division called Facebook AI Research (FAIR) dedicated to the lofty goal of 'solving AI' – essentially bringing about the Singularity – but its purchase of Bloomsbury is probably more about solving a specific problem.

TechCrunch suggests that Facebook bought the company to help identify fake news, but Bloomsbury's area of expertise – AI that reads text documents and answers based on their contents – suggests that chatbots are more likely to be the reason Mark Zuckerberg opened his wallet.

Facebook unveiled chatbots for Messenger in 2016, as a way for people to communicate more easily with businesses, and by the end of the year 34,000 bots were chatting away with customers.

Last year the company released a framework called ParlAI (parley, get it?) to help developers improve their chatbots' verbal skills, helping make those thousands of bots' replies faster and less robotic.

It also conducted an infamous experiment that involved two chatbots speaking to one another. After a while, their conversations evolved into something that looked nonsensical to human observers but were actually a more efficient evolution of English.

"I can can I I everything else," said one bot. "Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to," replied the other.

Facebook rebooted the system and started afresh – not because the bots were colluding to take over the world, but because the researchers simply weren't interested in the direction the study had taken.

Bloomsbury's technology could help bots read websites, brochures and other documents, and answer questions based on what they've learned quickly and, most importantly, in a way that makes sense.

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of TechRadar's sister site Advnture. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better)