September 25, 2020

How Facebook Taught Its Search Tool to Understand People

Its success is based on understanding how people are wired: how they present themselves, what they remember, whom they trust, and now, how they seek information.

Facebook this month introduced a search tool to help users find answers to many kinds of questions. But before it did, it assembled an eclectic team to scrutinize what users were searching for on the site — and how.

The team included two linguists, a Ph.D. in psychology and statisticians, along with the usual cadre of programmers. Their mission was ambitious but clear: teach Facebook’s computers how to communicate better with people.

Kathryn Hymes, 25, who left a master’s program in linguistics at Stanford to join the team in late 2011, said the goal was to create “this natural, intuitive language.” She was joined last March by Amy Campbell, who earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.

When the team began its work, Facebook’s largely ineffective search engine understood only “robospeak,” as Ms. Hymes put it, and not how people actually talk. The machine had to be taught the building blocks of questions, a bit like the way schoolchildren are taught to diagram a sentence. The code had to be restructured altogether.

Loren Cheng, 39, who led what is known as the natural language processing part of the project, said the search engine had to adjust to the demands of users, a great variety of them, considering Facebook’s mass appeal. “It used to be you had to go to the computer on the computer’s terms,” Mr. Cheng said. “Now it’s the user.”

The heart of the research took place in a lab at the Facebook offices here. Hidden behind one-way glass, team members watched users playing with different versions of a search engine and filled notebooks with observations. On occasion, the engineers tore out their hair.

They consulted dictionaries, newspapers and parliamentary proceedings to grasp the almost infinite variety of ways people posed questions. Then they trained the algorithms to understand what was meant. They tested tweaks to the search tool, as they do with every product, and measured how certain groups of people responded.

The project represents how Facebook builds products. It studies human behavior. It tests its ideas. Its goal is to draw more and more people to the site and keep them there longer.

What it builds is not exactly a replica of how people interact offline, said Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford who specializes in human-computer interaction. Rather, it reflects an “idealized view of how people communicate.”

“The psychology they are drawing on is not pure psychology of how humans communicate,” Professor Nass said, “but the psychology of what makes people stay around, spend time on site and secondarily, what makes people click the advertisements.”

It explains why there is a “like” button but not a “dislike” button; negative emotions turn people away, he said. The very principle of the like button is based on a psychological concept known as homophily: the notion that people like similar kinds of people and things. The reason profile pictures pop up every time a Facebook friend is used in a Sponsored Story advertisement is that people remember faces better than words.

Facebook constantly tests and tweaks its features for its diverse, global audience, paying close attention to the responses. The search tool, in its first iteration, answers queries by mining some of the data at the company’s disposal, including photos, interests and likes. It will eventually mine status updates and other activities, from what users eat to where they hike. The introduction is especially slow, Facebook executives have said, so they can better test what works and what does not.

Article source:

India’s Aakash Venture Produces Optimism but Few Computers

THE idea was, and still is, captivating: in 2011, the Indian government and two Indian-born tech entrepreneurs unveiled a $50 tablet computer, to be built in India with Google’s free Android software. The government would buy the computers by the millions and give them to its schoolchildren.

Enthusiasts saw the plan as a way to bring modern touch-screen computing to some of the world’s poorest people while seeding a technology manufacturing industry in India. Legions of customers placed advance orders for a commercial version of the tablet, thrilled at the prospect of owning tangible proof that India was a leader in “frugal innovation.”

Even the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, lavished praise on the audacious project, called Aakash, the Hindi word for sky. “India is a superpower on the information superhighway,” Mr. Ki-moon said at a ceremony in November at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Stoking expectations was Suneet Singh Tuli, the charismatic C.E.O. of the small London-based company that won the bid. “I am creating a product at a lower price than anyone else in the world with the hope that it impacts people’s lives and I make money out of it,” he said in a recent interview.

But over the last few months, it has become increasingly evident that Mr. Tuli, 44, and his older brother, Raja Singh Tuli, 46, are unable to deliver on most of their ambitious promises.

The Tulis acknowledge that their company, DataWind, will not even come close to shipping the 100,000 tablets it has promised to India’s colleges and universities before its year-end deadline. Most of the 10,000 or so tablets delivered through early December were made in China, despite the company’s early pledge to manufacture in India. Financial statements filed with British regulators show that the company is deeply in the red.

And the project’s entire premise — that India can make a cheap tablet computer that will somehow make up for failures of the country’s crippled education system — is fundamentally flawed, according to some experts in education and manufacturing.

Leigh L. Linden, an assistant professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the use of technology in schools in India and other developing countries, said that, at best, computers merely match the performance gains from far less costly projects that involve hiring additional teachers or teaching assistants. And in some cases, Professor Linden said, the introduction of computers can actually lower students’ test results.

“Based on the available research,” he said, “this would not be the most effective strategy for education in developing countries.”

The notion that India’s weak manufacturing sector can catch up to China in advanced computer hardware also strikes some experts as far-fetched. “China became the manufacturing center of the world, and India missed that boat,” said Surjit S. Bhalla, an economist and managing director of Oxus Investments.

So far, the Indian government is standing firmly behind the project.

“All pathbreaking ideas do look too ambitious when conceived,” the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which oversees the Aakash project, said in an e-mailed statement. Aakash is “an all-encompassing project,” not just the creation of a tablet computer, the ministry said. With it, the government plans to create “an entire manufacturing ecosystem” in India.

INTERVIEWS with DataWind executives, government officials, Chinese manufacturers, business partners and former and current employees paint a picture of a small family company that was overwhelmed by a complex project that even China’s cutthroat technology manufacturers would find challenging to execute at the price expected by the government.

Leading a tour last month of the company’s small touch-screen factory in downtown Montreal, Raja Tuli, DataWind’s co-chairman and chief technology officer, said he had initially opposed his brother’s desire to bid on the Aakash contract, and he expressed lingering regrets.

“We got stuck in it,” he said. “We’re doing our best.”

DataWind’s real goal, Mr. Tuli said, is to sell low-cost wireless Internet access for tablets in developing countries like India. He said DataWind’s proprietary data compression technology, which made its debut in Britain years ago with a device called the PocketSurfer, efficiently delivers Web pages over older, slower cellphone networks.

Pamposh Raina reported from New Delhi and Amritsar, India, Ian Austen from Montreal and Heather Timmons from New Delhi. Mia Li contributed reporting from Beijing.

Article source: