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Facebook's robotic arms and legs are learning faster than ever

(Bloomberg) --Although Facebook Inc. doesn’t sell robots, its researchers use plenty of them -- and the company said its machines are getting a lot smarter, a lot faster.

The social media giant announced in a blog post Monday that its engineers, working with computer scientists from New York University, have reduced the time it takes to teach a robotic arm how to grasp objects to tens of tries, rather than hundreds or thousands.

It may seem like a tangential development -- Facebook doesn’t sell robots, after all -- but advancements in robotics can lead to improvements in other forms of machine-learning, smartening the software Facebook has begun to use to spot harmful or unfavorable behavior of users on the social network.

The company has been under ever increasing pressure to use AI to police extremist violence, hate speech and misinformation on its platform. The company has said it is making progress, but that systems that can reliably block such content without human intervention are still years away.

“The great thing about robotics is that it takes place in real time, in the real world,” Antoine Bordes, co-managing director of the company’s artificial intelligence research labs, said in an interview last week in Paris.

He contrasted this to research that taught AI to master games, such as chess or Go, which can be run at super-human speeds allowing a software agent to learn from playing millions of games against itself in a period of just a few weeks. Many contemporary AI methods are extremely data hungry, requiring thousands or even millions of labeled examples to learn from, or, thousands or millions of attempts in a simulated environment to equal or exceed human performance.

Facebook began working on robots in the past year because it forced researchers to think creatively about how to make machine-learning more efficient, Bordes said, but added that the company has no plans to commercialize its robots any time soon.

robot hand.jpg
The Shadow Dexterous robotic hand, manufactured by The Shadow Robot Company, touches the keyboard of an Apple Inc. MacBook Pro computer during a demonstration of its agility in an arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. The hand with ultra-sensitive touch sensors on the fingertips, including the thumb and even the flex of the palm for the little finger, provides unique capabilities for problems that require the closest approximation of the human hand currently possible. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

In addition to the robotic arm, Facebook has experimented with finding ways for a six-legged robot to teach itself how to walk. It said it eventually hoped to reduce the time needed to train such a skill to hours instead of days or weeks.

With computer scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, Facebook has experimented with having robots learn about their world through tactile sensors that give them “a sense of touch,” rather than relying solely on computer vision.

Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist, said in an interview Friday that the company’s researchers had a responsibility to “see around corners” to where technology might be heading. If robots did eventually become a popular consumer good and Facebook decided to sell them, he said, it would need to have experts already on staff.

“You’ve got to start early," he said. "It’s not just something you can jump into when it picks up.”