Earlier this year at Facebook’s F8 conference, the company revealed three innovation pillars that make up the company’s ten-year vision: connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), and virtual reality (VR). Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer is responsible for leading each of them. Despite the fact that the vision is ten-years in duration, the company has made significant progress in each.
Facebook’s progress in AI can been seen in everything from the company’s news feed to the way in which people are tagged. The virtual reality innovations are best demonstrated through the Oculus Rift, which I demo’d last Thursday. More recently, the company made a great flight forward on the connectivity pillar as Acquila, a long-endurance plane that will fly above commercial aircraft and the weather, took flight in Arizona. The goal is for this v-shaped aircraft that has a wingspan longer than a Boeing 737, but weighs under 1,000 pounds to bring basic internet access to the developing world.
I met with Schroepfer at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, and we discussed these three pillars and a variety of other topics, including the company’s recruiting methods, how the company maintains its innovative edge, and the logic behind its headquarters – one of the largest open-space offices in the world.
Peter High: Earlier this year at F8 2016, Facebook’s developer’s conference, you introduced three innovation pillars. Could you take a moment to highlight each of them?
Mike Schroepfer:We have been, I think pretty uniquely in the industry, very public about our ten-year vision and roadmap, and we have broken it down into three core areas:
- connectivity, connecting the approximately four billion people in the world who do not have internet access today (the majority of the world);
- artificial intelligence in solving some of the core problems and building truly intelligent computer systems; and
- virtual reality and augmented reality, building the next generation of computing systems that have probably the best promise that I am aware of to give me the ability to feel like I am present with someone in the same room, even if they are thousands of miles away.
High: With the abundant resources and brain power at Facebook, how did you choose those three as opposed to others?
Schroepfer: A lot of this derives directly from [Facebook CEO] Mark [Zuckerberg], and comes from the mission, which is to make the world more open and connected. I think of this simply as using technology to connect people. We sit down and say, “OK, if that is our goal, the thing we are uniquely suited for, what are the big problems of the world?” As you start breaking it down, these fall out quite naturally. The first problem is if a bunch of the world does not even have basic connectivity to the internet, that is a fundamental problem. Then you break it down and realize there are technological solutions to problems; there are things that can happen to dramatically reduce the cost of deploying infrastructure, which is the big limiting factor. It is just an economics problem. Once people are connected, you run into the problem you and I have, which is almost information overload. There is so much information out there, but I have limited time and so I may not be getting the best information. Then there is the realization that the only way to scale that is to start building intelligent systems in AI that can be my real-time assistant all the time, making sure that I do not miss anything that is critical to me and that I do not spend my time on stuff that is less important. The only way we know how to do that at the scale we operate at is artificial intelligence.
So there is connectivity and I am getting the right information, but most of us have friends or family who are not physically next to us all the time, and we cannot always be there for the most important moments in life. The state of the art technology we have for that right now is the video camera. If I want to capture a moment with my kids and remember it forever, that is the best we can do right now. The question is, ‘What if I want to be there live and record those moments in a way that I can relive them twenty years from now as if I was there?’ That is where virtual reality comes in. It gives you the capability of putting a headset on and experiencing it today, and you feel like you are in a real world somewhere else, wherever you want to be.
High: How do you think about those longer term goals, the things that are going to take a lot of stair steps to get to, versus the near-term exhaust of ideas that are going to be commercialized and commercial-ready?