Facebook has a vision for the future: a future in which millions more people around the globe are connected to the Internet — and to Facebook. Speaking at Facebook’s F8 Developer’s Conference, Facebook’s chief tech officer Mike Schroepfer told an audience how the social network plans to “build the connected world” through a trifecta of planetary connectivity, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, as per a version of the keynote published on Backchannel. In doing so, Facebook will not only press onward with the tradition of each new generation of technology enabling people to connect with others in faster, more efficient, and more immersive ways, but use that push toward innovation to propel Facebook closer to ubiquity the world over.
“It’s tempting to see progress as inevitable,” says Schroepfer. “But in every era of innovation, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs had to confront new bottlenecks — solving the technical problems that held us back from connecting in better ways.” Facebook sees technology today standing on the cusp of a “new era” in connection, but Schroepfer identified “three big bottlenecks to that future,” naming planetary connectivity, artificial intelligence, and shared experiences via virtual reality as “some of the hardest engineering challenges of our time.”
‘The hardest engineering challenges of our time’
Schroepfer says that only a third of the world is connected to the Internet. “To connect everyone, we have to build infrastructure at planetary scale,” he says, “and find new ways to bring people online.” Through its Open Compute Project, Facebook is working with hundreds of companies to develop data center, network, and hardware designs that are scalable, efficient, and sustainable. And Schroepfer says that Facebook is developing “radical new infrastructure” to connect people who live in some of the most inaccessible places in the world, citing the successful test flight of the company’s unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, platform. That platform and others developed by engineers at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab aim to provide cost-effective solutions as the industry confronts the “engineering challenge” of global connectivity.
Artificial intelligence is also an important part of Facebook’s plans for the connected world. “AI can help people connect with the things that matter to them, but it requires a new kind of machine intelligence that can understand context,” Schroepfer says. Such artificial intelligence will underly Facebook’s future interfaces and systems. Facebook has already developed AI that can identify 487 different categories of sports in videos, and it’s developed a new technology it’s calling Memory Networks. The technology adds a kind of short-term memory to the convolutional neural networks that underpin existing deep learning systems, enabling them to understand language more deeply and answer relatively complex questions about texts they haven’t seen before.
Schroepfer says that Facebook considers shared experiences via virtual reality as the next phase in human communication. While virtual reality has long been a dream for the computing industry, the technology that enables the creation of immersive experiences is beginning to become a reality thanks to advances in processing power, graphics, and optical technology. Facebook’s Oculus team is building the hardware and software that Facebook hopes will “turn VR into something that millions of people will use every day.”
“With more connectivity, smarter AI, and immersive VR,” Schroepfer says, “people can stay closer to distant friends and family. The events and moments you share online — wishing happy birthday to a friend, celebrating an anniversary, or watching your kid ride a bike for the first time – can become even more awesome.” In building the technologies to make these goals possible, Facebook plans to work in the open and build communities around them to speed the pace of innovation.
‘Heading down the rabbit hole together’
But many are skeptical of Facebook’s intentions for the connected world. Co.Design’s Mark Wilson referred to Facebook’s 10-year plan for the connected world as the social network’s plot to “become the Matrix.” In Wilson’s assessment, Mark Zuckerberg’s chart of how technology has enabled people to share increasingly complex experiences — with text progressing to photos progressing to videos progressing to the next step of virtual and augmented reality — is a “beautiful conceit” about connecting humanity. However, Wilson thinks that Facebook doesn’t just want to map its social network onto a world that already exists. Instead, he argues, “They want to suck the real world inside Facebook’s virtual walls. They want you to live in the Facebook Matrix.”
Michael Abrash, the chief scientist at Facebook-owned Oculus VR, referenced the film more than once while speaking at F8, referencing red and blue pills and the nature of reality. But Abrash said, “Unlike Morpheus, I’m not offering you a choice [of pills] today. No matter what you pick, we’re heading down the rabbit hole together.”
Wilson takes this to mean that “Facebook is building an entire infrastructure to suck your physical life into its digital world. He points Facebook updating its Parse app development platform to tap in to the Internet of Things, the company’s development of visual artificial intelligence that defines what’s going on in the world around you, and Abrash’s projection that virtual reality platforms will evolve to enable users to “pull the real world into virtual reality,” letting them interact with real, physical things in the digital world.
But if you want to be skeptical of the eventual effects of Facebook’s efforts to “connect the world,” you don’t have to resort to theories about how Facebook could build its own Matrix. You just have to look at its effect in the developing countries where people’s first experience with the Internet is Facebook. As Quartz’s Leo Mirani reported in February, many of those users don’t even know that they’re using the Internet. Large numbers of first-time web users come online not via the open web, but via Facebook’s closed, proprietary network. Awareness of the Internet is low in many developing countries, and for many users, Facebook is the Internet because it’s the easiest and cheapest part of the Internet to access.
How the next billion users come online will have huge effects on how the Internet evolves. Mirani points out that if the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, content creators, advertisers, service providers, and anyone else who wants to communicate with them will also have to turn to Facebook and play by Facebook’s rules. Many new users won’t access the Internet outside of the controlled ecosystem that Facebook provides via its Internet.org initiative, and therefore won’t experience the benefits of the open web. And that’s perhaps the scariest rabbit hole we could be headed down.