Security

Facebook spares humans by fighting offensive photos with AI

Comment

Image Credits:

Facebook’s artificial intelligence systems now report more offensive photos than humans do, marking a major milestone in the social network’s battle against abuse, the company tells me. AI could quarantine obscene content before it ever hurts the psyches of real people.

Facebook’s success in ads has fueled investments into the science of AI and machine vision that could give it an advantage in stopping offensive content. Creating a civil place to share without the fear of bullying is critical to getting users to post their personal content that draws in friends’ attention.

Twitter has been widely criticized for failing to adequately prevent or respond to claims of harassment on its platform, and last year former CEO Dick Costolo admitted “We suck at dealing with abuse.” Twitter has yet to turn a profit, and doesn’t have the resources to match Facebook’s investments in AI, but has still been making a valiant effort.

To fuel the fight, Twitter acquired a visual intelligence startup called Madbits, and Whetlab, an AI neural networks startup. Together, their AI can identify offensive images, and only incorrectly flagged harmless images just 7 percent of the time as of a year ago, according to Wired. This reduces the number of humans needed to do the tough job, though Twitter still requires a human to give the go-ahead before it suspends an account for offensive images.


Facebook shows off its AI vision technologies

A brutal Job

When malicious users upload something offensive to torment or disturb people, it traditionally has to be seen and flagged by at least one human, either a user or paid worker. These offensive posts that violate Facebook’s or Twitter’s terms of service can include content that is hate speech, threatening or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

For example, a bully, jilted ex-lover, stalker, terrorist or troll could post offensive photos to someone’s wall, a Group, Event or the feed. They might upload revenge porn, disgusting gory images or sexist or racist memes. By the time someone flags the content as offensive so Facebook reviews it and might take it down, the damage is partially done.

Previously, Twitter and Facebook had relied extensively on outside human contractors from startups like CrowdFlower, or companies in the Philippines. As of 2014, Wired reported that estimates pegged the number of human content moderators at around 100,000, with many making paltry salaries around $500 a month.

The occupation is notoriously terrible, psychologically injuring workers who have to comb through the depths of depravity, from child porn to beheadings. Burnout happens quickly, workers cite symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and whole health consultancies like Workplace Wellbeing have sprung up to assist scarred moderators.

Facebook's Joaquin Candela presents on AI at the MIT Technology Review's Emtech Digital conference
Facebook’s Joaquin Candela presents on AI at the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Digital conference

But AI is helping Facebook avoid having to subject humans to such a terrible job. Instead of making contractors the first line of defense, or resorting to reactive moderation where unsuspecting users must first flag an offensive image, AI could unlock active moderation at scale by having computers scan every image uploaded before anyone sees it.

Today we have more offensive photos being reported by AI algorithms than by people. Facebook's Joaquin Candela

Following his recent talk at the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco, I sat down with Facebook’s Director of Engineering for Applied Machine Learning Joaquin Candela.

He spoke about the practical uses of AI for Facebook, where 25 percent of engineers now regularly use its internal AI platform to build features and do business. With 40 petaflops of compute power, Facebook analyzes trillions of data samples along billions of parameters. This AI helps rank News Feed stories, read aloud the content of photos to the vision impaired and automatically write closed captions for video ads that increase view time by 12 percent.

Facebook AI video tagging
Facebook’s Joaquin Candela shows off a research prototype of AI tagging of friends in videos

Candela revealed that Facebook is in the research stages of using AI to build out automatic tagging of faces in videos, and an option to instantly fast-forward to when a tagged person appears in the video. Facebook has also built a system for categorizing videos by topic. Candela demoed a tool on stage that could show video collections by category, such as cats, food or fireworks.

But a promising application of AI is rescuing humans from horrific content moderation jobs. Candela told me that “One thing that is interesting is that today we have more offensive photos being reported by AI algorithms than by people. The higher we push that to 100 percent, the fewer offensive photos have actually been seen by a human.”

Facebook, Twitter and others must simultaneously make sure their automated systems don’t slip into becoming draconian thought police. Built wrong, or taught with overly conservative rules, AI could censor art and free expression that might be productive or beautiful even if it’s controversial. And as with most forms of AI, it could take jobs from people in need.

Sharing the shield

Defending Facebook is an enormous job. After his own speaking gig at the recent Applied AI conference in San Francisco, I spoke with Facebook’s director of core machine learning Hussein Mehanna about Facebook’s artificial intelligence platform Facebook Learner.

Mehanna tells me 400,000 new posts are published on Facebook every minute, and 180 million comments are left on public posts by celebrities and brands. That’s why beyond images, Mehanna tells me Facebook is trying to understand the meaning of text shared on the platform.

AI could eventually help Facebook combat hate speech. Today Facebook, along with Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft agreed to new hate speech rules. They’ll work to remove hate speech within 24 hours if it violates a unified definition for all EU countries. That time limit seems a lot more feasible with computers shouldering the effort.

Facebook's Hussein Mehanna speaks at the Applied AI conference
Facebook’s Hussein Mehanna speaks at the Applied AI conference

That same AI platform could protect more than just Facebook, and thwart more than just problematic images.

“Instagram is completely on top of the platform. I’ve heard they like it very much,” Mehanna tells me. “WhatsApp uses parts of the platform… Oculus use some aspects of the platform.”

The application for content moderation on Instagram is obvious, though WhatsApp sees a tremendous amount of images shared, too. One day, our experiences in Oculus virtual reality could be safeguarded against the nightmare of not just being shown offensive content, but being forced to live through the scenes depicted.

We don’t see AI as our secret weapon. Facebook's Hussein Mehanna

But to wage war on the human suffering caused by offensive content on social networks, and the moderators who sell their own sanity to block it, Facebook is building bridges beyond its own family of companies.

“We share our research openly,” Mehanna explains, regarding how Facebook is sharing its findings and open-sourcing its AI technologies. “We don’t see AI as our secret weapon just to compete with other companies.”

In fact, a year ago Facebook began inviting teams from Netflix, Google, Uber, Twitter and other significant tech companies to discuss the applications of AI. Mehanna says Facebook’s now doing its fourth or fifth round of periodic meetups where “we literally share with them the design details” of its AI systems, teach the teams of its neighboring tech companies and receive feedback.

DSC05462
Mark Zuckerberg cites AI vision and languages as part of Facebook’s 10-year roadmap at F8 2016

“Advancing AI is something you want to do for the rest of the community and the world because it’s going to touch the lives of many more people,” Mehanna reinforces. At first glance, it might seem a strategic misstep to aid companies that Facebook competes with for time spent and ad dollars.

But Mehanna echoes the sentiment of Candela and others at Facebook when he talks about open sourcing. “I personally believe it’s not a win-lose situation, it’s a win-win situation. If we improve the state of AI in the world, we will definitely eventually benefit. But I don’t see people nickel and diming it.”

Sure, if Facebook doesn’t share, it could save a few bucks others have to spend on human content moderation or other toiling avoided with AI. But by building and offering up its underlying technologies, Facebook could make sure it’s computers, not people, doing the dirty work.

More TechCrunch

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

19 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies