Facebook is bringing artsy neural networks to a phone near you

The social network's mobile app will transform video using machine learning in real time

Facebook users will be able to record smartphone videos that ape the style of famous artworks with a new feature unveiled Tuesday. Using a technique called style transfer, the feature takes live video and turns it into something that resembles the work of Van Gogh, Picasso and other artists.

That effect is probably familiar to people who have used the app Prisma, which uses similar techniques to change the look of photos. Prisma's app can't perform live filtering, and some filters require a connection to the internet. Facebook's system can work offline and render live.

The underlying technology is called Caffe2go. It's a framework that lets Facebook engineers run deep neural nets on a smartphone, and it can have applications beyond just video interpretation. While the system's resulting images are snazzy, they also show off the potential to bring machine learning closer to users' daily lives.

Typically, the machine learning systems that underpin intelligent features like Facebook's News Feed run on racks of beefy computers in big data centers. That's fine for situations where a bit of network latency is acceptable or even expected, like refreshing a user's News Feed. But it's ill-suited to editing photos live, which is why this system is so useful.

Don't expect Facebook to start running Skynet off a smartphone anytime soon, though. At this point, the Caffe2go system only works with pre-trained machine-learning models. Facebook has to train and develop a model on its powerful data-center hardware before it can be deployed to a smartphone.

And even after all that, the models can't think like humans just yet. In a press briefing, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer showed an image of a plane crash that was captioned "a plane is parked on the tarmac at an airport" by a machine-learning algorithm designed to determine the content of images.

Still, Caffe2go is a key step toward increasing the ubiquity of machine learning. Facebook has said that it's focused on continuing to build out artificial intelligence capabilities, so it seems likely that we'll see more from the company in this vein going forward.

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Blair Hanley Frank

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