Facebook’s CTO on why he's betting big on AI, VR and bolstering internet access

Facebook’s CTO Mike Schroepfer on why its betting big on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and bolstering internet access

Earlier this year Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his 10-year roadmap for Facebook, with a view to building up its offering across three areas: connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Speaking today at the annual Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, the social network’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer elaborated on how Facebook is accelerating innovation in these areas and what that means for the future of the company and the businesses using it.

The talk follows on from recent hints that there may be challenges ahead for the platform. The social network itself has even warned that after beating expectations for 14 consecutive quarters, revenue growth could slow down in 2017, as it hits the limit it has set on the number of advertisers that can be served to users in the app’s news feed.

With a storm perhaps brewing on the horizon, it’s little wonder Facebook is widening the focus on technologies away from its main app.

The social network is clearly moving to scale up its technology offering, with Schroepfer telling a select group of reporters, including Business Insider, during an interview at the firm's Silicon Valley headquarters last week that some of its most popular apps like Messenger and WhatsApp are listed under the five-year mark on the 10-year roadmap because that's how long the company thinks it will be before they translate into any significant revenue.

This news could someone temper marketers' excitement around some of Facebook's best known platforms, but detailing his plans for the future, Schroepfer said at Web Summit that the company wants to focus on "the most important problems we are trying to solve,” and that Facebook’s mission is “to make the world more open and connected.”

These “problems” include bolstering internet access, building “truly” intelligent machines and producing VR “that lets us experience anything with anyone at any time.”

Connectivity

“People want to stay connected and close to other people, so whatever is the best current technology to deploy that is the business we want to be in,” he asserted, highlighting Facebook’s plans to expand internet connectivity throughout both rural and urban areas.

The social network wants to bring internet access to an extra four billion people around the globe using its solar-powered Aquila drone and Terragraph, a product that would let it explore high-speed wireless internet in cities.

Commenting on the company’s first ever Internet.org satellite, which was destroyed in the recent SpaceX rocket explosion, Schroepfer has said of these initiatives: "They don't always work. That's why we do multiple things at once."

VR and AI

Part of this mission to connect the world will include the creation of a standalone VR headset and AI picture-editing tool to let users add special filters to their own videos.

Dubbed Cafe2Go Facebook is going to build the neural network technology into its Android and IOS apps to let users incorporate the style of painters like Pablo Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh. The feature will launch shortly with the company saying that AI usage does not have to rely purely only on knowledge, but is something that could also be used "for creation."

Zuckerberg gave users a taste of Cafe2Go back in October, rendering his dog, Beast, in an impressionist style.

When it comes to VR, Schroepfer noted that Facebook ultimately wants to make it "cheaper, easy to use and highly distributed," and that the company is delving into this now having been waiting for the tech to catch up with its concepts.

"Like AI, we needed to wait for all the component technology to catch up with us," the executive said.

Of course Facebook famously owns Oculus, but Schroepfer said that it is working on a VR product which would be wireless, currently dubbed ‘Standalone’. The device is still in its early stages, but according to Schroepfer will contain cameras that track the position of users to their movements to coincide with the virtual world.

Hinting that it could be used to host conversations between users or transport them to events, the executive said: "The future is the ability to connect with the people you care about no matter whether you are a few or hundreds of miles away… and experience anything with anyone at any time.”

Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca