Can Facebook create the artificial conscience?

It's not the first time this kind of technology has been implemented.

Charlie Litchfield/The Des Moines Register/AP
A board displaying the Facebook logo is seen inside the new Facebook data center in Altoona, Iowa.

"A good conscience is a continual Christmas,” Benjamin Franklin once wrote. Wouldn’t he be surprised to learn that as we near that very holiday Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research lab has revealed it’s working on a new program that could serve as users’ digital conscience.

Those who follow sociology and social media may find plenty of fodder for debate in this new revelation from the social media giant over the pros and cons of automating the function of a conscience in the digital age.

According to Wired Magazine, Yann LeCun, head of Facebook’s AI lab, says he hopes to create a program that will analyze photos and other potential Facebook postings and evaluate whether they might cause poster’s remorse the morning after.

“Imagine that you had an intelligent digital assistant which would mediate your interaction with your friends,” he says, “and also with content on Facebook.”

The app would look at what users upload and say “Uh, this is being posted publicly. Are you sure you want your boss and your mother to see this?’” LeCun told the magazine.

Formally, a conscience is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a knowledge or sense of right and wrong with an urge to do right.”

It’s not the first time a non-human entity has been offered by a big corporation to act as a conscience and guide. Last time it was Disney offering up Jiminy Cricket talking to the wayward puppet Pinocchio.

Now, however, the social media giant is confident that many users will, as the cricket once sang to the little wooden boy, “Give a little whistle” and always let their digital conscience be their guide in what to post.

Some may reel at the thought that Facebook users are puppets willing to add yet another string in the form of an app that will stop you from posting revealing photos or speaking your mind in a semi-public forum.

It’s also not the first time such pre-emptive technology has been implemented.

According to an article in The Guardian, Gmail launched a feature back in 2008 asking weekend-evening users to answer a string of simple math problems before sending an email.

That was an effort to deter those too impaired to make calculations from sending off emails they might regret in the sober light of day.

However this new program would entail the use of “deep learning,” a focus of research at both Facebook and Google,.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word conscience comes from the Latin conscientia "knowledge within oneself, sense of right, a moral sense," from com- "with," or "thoroughly" + scire "to know" – literally the word stems from "with-knowledge."

That is what Facebook, Google and others seeking to recreate: the conscience outside of a human being hang their hats on – knowledge in the form of lots of data in an algorithm.

Fans of the original Jurassic Park film may hear the voice of the skeptical scientist character Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) voicing his concerns over giving the human conscience a digital cruch, as being just as potentially socially hazardous as bringing back dinosaurs.

Malcolm famously told the fictional character of empire-builder John Hammond, “before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it …but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”

Time will tell if Facebook’s developers are doing humanity a service or creating a monster.

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