Striking an emotional chord … through an algorithm?

bladerunnerI wrote last week about how much I enjoyed Facebook’s Lookback video. The social media giant offered the service to its users as a gift to mark its tenth anniversary. It meant a lot to me to watch my kids grow up over the course of a minute and to be reminded of fun things we’ve done as a family. There is no way I could have created something that professional looking, comprehensive, and concise myself. I love it. I love it so much I’ve been overcome by generosity and will graciously share it with you.

It took a computer to do that. A computer collected the happiest points of the last six years of my life and choreographed them to music. .

Think about that. And then explain to me how computing isn’t like literature or music or art or mathematics. Explain to me how it isn’t a primary means of human expression, how it isn’t a critical lens through which to view the world.

According to this article, Facebook produced several hundred million of these videos to thank its one-billion users. They most certainly didn’t get a cadre of movie producers pounding away on Adobe Premiere Elements to produce them. They wrote an algorithm to make them. As a computer scientist, it is fun for me to conjecture how the algorithm works its magic. It scans the database for all of your posts and pictures; subdivides them into eras that cover your first days on the network, your most recent activity, and the vast middle; ranks posts and pictures in each era in terms of how many likes and comments and shares they earned; combines that metric with data its automatic picture-tagging algorithms use to recognize faces of important people in your life, and schedules the zooming and panning of pictures to sync with the beats in the sugary soundtrack they chose. Voila! Simple, right?

Notice: I didn’t say, “How did they do that?” The use of the word “they” is a pet-peeve of mine. You know somebody has only a tenuous grasp on a subject if they keep on referring to the amorphous “they”. Liberally educated people have at least an inkling for explaining how the elusive they do things. That’s the gift a broad background in human ingenuity and expression gives you. You don’t have to attribute greatness to they. You try to make sense of it. But you need to have a foundation in order to be part of the great-and-powerful they.

There was nothing super techie in my explanation of Facebook’s Lookback magic. I didn’t get into the kinds of data structures they must have used, whether they used Java or C# or Javascript or HTML5 or a mix thereof, how they compressed the images and sound, how they managed to store and deliver all those videos with minimal delay, how they linked each user to their specific video, and how that magical and creepy face recognition thing worked. I gave the same explanation any other liberally educated, intelligent person should be able to give.

Assuming, of course, they studied Computer Science as part of their general education curriculum.

I’ll put away my soapbox for now. I wanted to end this piece with a story that really got me thinking about how impactful these videos are, even though they’re not directly manmade. A grieving father asked Facebook to allow him to see the Lookback video for his son who died two years ago.  Facebook granted his wish. His video and an article about the story appear here. It’s moving and disturbing and profound, all at the same time. It is a strange mix of pathos and perplexity. It raises so many questions.

A video tribute to a person no longer with us, made by a robot? Crazy, huh? Apparently, androids don’t dream just of electric sheep.


About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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