Zuck sucks up upstart Ozlo so it can stop sucking at chatbots

Facebook hits the acqui-hire button to boost its instant-messaging assistant

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Facebook has acquired Ozlo presumably to help the gigantic social network improve its virtual assistant M on its Messenger platform.

Based in Palo Alto, California, Ozlo is a startup specializing in trying to get software to understand text. The team built an app fronted by a blue cartoon yeti-like robot, which does things like recommend interesting bars and restaurants to users and provide them with menus and maps. It can process people's reviews in its hunt for the best places, with human trainers keep an eye on it to make sure it's not ingesting duff information.

Founded in 2013, Ozlo began by building a knowledge graph containing over two billion “entities” – a library of facts – to power its bot's search engine. That way, despite having relatively little or no intelligence, the software sounds smart when you talk to it and ask it questions: it seemingly has all the answers.

That makes it a rather useful upgrade for Facebook's Siri-like M virtual assistant.

FB CEO Mark Zuckerberg had hoped M would be launched as a revolutionary product earlier this year at its F8 conference. However, there was a design flaw with M. When it was asked a question it couldn't understand, it would fall back to a human operator within Facebook to handle.

That's not so bad when dealing with a limited number of users in a beta test. But rolling out the assistant across the entire Facebook platform with its billion-plus addicts would place too much of a burden on the human backstops. The system just couldn't scale. The support team would have to be expanded by thousands of workers to account for the bot’s shortcomings, and the cost was prohibitive.

M was sent back to the lab, cut down, and eventually ushered into public view as a recommendation engine – suggesting food, stickers and things to do – rather than the personal chatty cyber friend Facebook bosses hoped it would be.

We assume Monday's acqui-hire of Ozlo was engineered to bring extra talent to Menlo Park to boost M's abilities. "We're excited to let you know that we're joining the Messenger team at Facebook," the upstart states on its website.

Ozlo’s CEO and cofounder, Charles Jolley, has close ties with the social media giant. He was head of platform for Facebook on Android. The company includes 30 employees with backgrounds in “computational linguistics, machine learning, data science, search and relevance, and infrastructure.”

Facebook will thus inherit Ozlo’s workforce and technology, and the startup will shut down its APIs and app.

Building the perfect digital assistant that can fluently and articulately converse with humans is a monumental task – one that seems impossible with today's tools in natural language, machine learning and artificial intelligence. It’s an intense area of research at Facebook, considering that a good chunk of its content is text. In May, it open-sourced ParlAI, a Python-based tool that lets developers train and evaluate bots on a series of conversational tasks.

Its most recent project involves something called Dr QA. The system combines information retrieval and a recurrent neural network to pull relevant facts and figures from Wikipedia to attempt “machine reading at scale.”

The financial details of the Ozlo deal were not disclosed. ®


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