Apr 30, 2024 - Technology

Meta's AI-everywhere push raises hackles

headshot
Animated illustration of a nervous face formed from eyes made of the logo from Meta AI's assistant and a mouth made from a search bar with a blinking cursor.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Meta is pushing generative AI into every nook and cranny of its giant platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — frustrating some longtime users and threatening to worsen existing problems with spam and misinformation.

The big picture: Meta's fast-and-furious deployment of new AI features aims to make the technology's benefits accessible — but also risks degrading the experience for its billions of users.

Context: The company, which has been investing in AI for years, took a hit from investors last week after CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that he is doubling down on spending on AI infrastructure even though any bottom-line payoff is a long way off.

  • Unlike rivals Google, Microsoft and OpenAI, Meta has no clear path to charging consumers for their usage of expensive-to-run AI tools.

Driving the news: Meta is putting its AI assistant in lots of different places across desktop, mobile and web versions of its apps — sometimes to the delight of customers, but as often in ways that are frustrating.

  • In Meta's various messaging products, people can choose to have a separate conversation with Meta AI or summon the assistant to help out in new and existing group chats, whether that's to share a funny image created from a text prompt or to ask for advice on where to eat out together.

Yes, but: Meta also wants to make sure more people experience Meta AI without knowing how to summon it.

  • That's part of why the assistant has started showing up in prominent places throughout Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — and also where the company has sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

Most controversially, Meta has put Meta AI front and center in the search bars for Facebook and Instagram that have served as key tools to find content from particular friends or creators. For many, the main search bar in Instagram now says "Ask Meta AI anything."

  • CEO Mark Zuckerberg's post on Threads announcing the changes prompted hundreds of user complaints, particularly because users said they couldn't turn the new search feature off.
  • Protests multiplied in other forums like Reddit and X.

Meta is also testing a host of other AI features, meaning not everyone is seeing the same features and interfaces.

  • Some of those AI features have also proven problematic, such as this well-publicized example from a parents' group conversation in which Meta AI claimed it had a gifted, disabled child. (I'm told this was part of a since-scrapped test, and that Meta AI does not currently post on its own.)
  • I have been part of a limited test that offers a host of AI-powered choices as I write new posts using the mobile version of Facebook, including a broad "Write with AI" option, as well as specific options to shorten, lengthen or change the tone of my posts.
A screenshot of a test by Meta that offers certain users the ability to use AI tools to help craft or modify their post.
A screenshot of a test by Meta that offers certain users AI tools to help craft or modify their post. Screenshot: Ina Fried/Axios.

Between the lines: The aggressive product roll-out strategy is classic Facebook.

  • Over the years, Facebook users have had to adapt to enormous changes in the platform's design and behavior — like the original introduction of the news feed — that the company rolled out fast and often clumsily.
  • Users have typically first rallied against such changes before ultimately embracing them.

The other side: Meta's AI products have plenty of attractive selling points.

  • For example, in WhatsApp and on the Meta.ai site, the Imagine text-to-image creator can show you a preview while you type, so you can see how changing the prompt could change the result. By contrast, most other text-to-image tools require you to finish a prompt and then wait for a reply.
  • Meta taps Bing and Google to help provide real-time results for search queries, while it says the latest Llama 3 model makes Meta AI more conversant across a broader range of topics.
  • "We believe Meta AI is now the most intelligent AI assistant you can use for free and it's an experience we'll continue to iterate on and enhance moving forward," the company told Axios in a statement.
  • Meta says it believes trying things out is the best way to figure out which features resonate: "Our generative AI-powered experiences are under development in varying phases, and we're testing a range of them publicly in a limited capacity."
  • As for putting Meta AI in places like search, the company said it wants more people to know about the tool and its capabilities. "With our latest release of Meta AI, we wanted to make it easily accessible across our family of apps and on new surfaces, like on [the website] meta.ai,"

What's next: The more fully Meta integrates generative AI into the day-to-day lives of its users, the higher the risk that AI tools will accelerate the platforms' longstanding problems with misinformation and spam.

  • Meta's conflicting loyalties to both advertisers and users create some incentives for it to develop AI technologies that keep people on their services longer, rather than helping them achieve a task and move on.
  • Further, generative AI has the power to aggregate a huge amount of personal data and allow for custom targeting of individuals, potentially quite persuasively.
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