Innovation

Facebook embraces AI to get businesses and customers talking

Mark Zuckerberg kicked off Facebook's F8 developer conference with big swings at future tech like artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

Facebook launched nearly 10 years ago, and founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to talk about the next 10.

On Tuesday, Zuckerberg outlined Facebook's 10-year roadmap at F8, Facebook's developer conference which took place at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, California.

To open, he talked about the company's mission to connect people, and quickly referenced concerning calls in recent political discourse for the world to "turn inward," warning against "building walls" and turning people away.

The structure Zuckerberg presented was broken between ecosystems, products, and technologies. So for example, Facebook being the ecosystem, Instagram is a product, and artificial intelligence is a technology.

For businesses, the big news was the introduction of chat bots for Messenger.

Facebook is betting that the way people will interact with businesses one day will be through chat bots, instead of 1-800 numbers and the like. The tech giant is giving developers the tools to build these bots.

"Now to order from 1-800-Flowers, you don't need to call 1-800-Flowers again," Zuckerberg said.

David Marcus, vice president of messaging products gave more details of the initiative.

As messenger is the fastest growing app in the US, with more than 900 million monthly users, he said the tie-in was a way to "make the product a more central part of people's daily lives."

As an example, Marcus ordered a pair of sneakers using Messenger.

Facebook is also launching the beta of the Send/Receive API for more advanced bots. Developers can feed it with several conversations and, using natural language processing, the bot can handle several variations on that conversation and then learn. That means bots will be able to have conversation-like interactions with people because they can understand.

The announcement of these tools widens Facebook's efforts to adapt Messenger for businesses. At last year's F8 conference, Zuckerberg introduced Messenger Business as a way to streamline interactions between businesses and clients—think receipts, shipping notifications, etc. Also, it gets businesses into customers' inboxes.

Apart from ordering goods, the chatbots could be used by brands in capacities like asking the CNN bot for an explanation of what the Zika virus is.

Zuckerberg thinks that AI has the potential to save lives in the form of innovations in spaces like medicine, and the further Facebook can progress it, the more everyone benefits. In the meantime, Facebook could learn how to put more interesting content in your newsfeed as the platform learns to understand the contents of videos, photos, and more.

While Zuckerberg was only on stage for 30 minutes, others from the company talked about other topic areas like Live video—they project that 70% of all mobile traffic will come from video by 2021.

And, Facebook has been pushing live video hard, including paying celebrities as well as outlets like Buzzfeed and the New York Times to use it. For what? Well, this past Friday, Buzzfeed put 600 rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded. It went viral, raking in more than two million views.

Under that video umbrella falls 360 video, which Facebook announced support for last year. Facebook's chief product officer, Chris Cox, described the feeling of first experiencing 360 video as having an IMAX on your face.

In what was a bit of a surprise, Facebook also announced the Facebook Surround 360 camera, a professional-grade camera for capturing 360 video that will be open source. In addition, they also made the pitch that AR and VR will eventually take on the less-obtrusive form factor of regular glasses.

"Virtual reality has the potential to be the most social platform because you feel you're right there with that person," Zuckerberg said. He referenced the more than 200 million hours of video users have watched in Gear VR, but didn't mention any of Oculus' recent issues fulfilling pre-orders of the consumer Rift.

Again, VR is a bigger picture play for Facebook, like AI.

"A lot of the things we think about a physical thing like a TV will be $1 apps," he said.

Facebook is also continuing its efforts toward connectivity. The company is actually building a solar-powered plane that can bring internet access to places lacking it. Facebook has more than a billion users worldwide, and wants to get the rest of the population on board as well.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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