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Facebook’s future: Drones, artificial intelligence and virtual reality

This quarter Facebook reported a doubling in research and development spending from a year ago, as the company invests for the long term. Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer sat down in an exclusive interview to talk about where Facebook is spending that money, and where it sees its future: Drones, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says one of the company's greatest missions is to connect the world, including the 4 billion people who are not yet online. On Thursday Facebook's Connectivity Lab, which is focused on achieving that connectivity, announced a new milestone: Its drone designed to provide Internet service in remote areas is now complete and ready for flight testing. The aircraft, with the wingspan of a 737, but a weight hundreds of times less, is designed to circle for up to 90 days, "beaming connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet."

Mike Schroepfer
Getty Images
Mike Schroepfer

"It's just too expensive to put up huge telephone poles and string large wires to an area where not many people live ... in a very rural farming area," said Schroepfer.

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The company also announced a breakthrough for the tools that will deliver that connectivity. The social media giant has designed a laser that can deliver data at 10 gigabytes per second, which Facebook says is roughly 10 times faster than the previous state-of-the-art in the industry. "Multiple planes locked should be flying using lasers pointing at each other to do high-speed communications," Schroepfer said.

The two other high-tech areas of focus for Schroepfer are virtual reality and artificial intelligence. On Facebook's earnings call Wednesday, Zuckerberg pointed to the potential in its Oculus business, calling "immersive 3-D content the obvious next thing after video."

Schroepfer says Oculus is about far more than just video gaming, but about creating a totally immersive way to virtually connect. "The goal is that [VR] will be nearly indistinguishable from reality. You get this thing on and you feel like you're there."

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And Facebook's investment in artificial intelligence isn't about building robots, but about helping the company better understand users so it can anticipate their needs. "My hope for AI and Facebook in the next decade is you can sit down and tell Facebook, 'this is what I want to hear about today,'" said Schroepfer. "Like I'm having a bad day I want to hear some good news."

"If we make our products better, more people will use it, people use it more, it's fairly easy to understand. And I think VR has in the long run, the ability to be the next computing platform and I think a lot of interesting things can happen out of that."

While Google has been criticized for investing in "moon shot" technologies that are too far afield, Schroepfer said that all of Facebook's high-tech investments are ambitious, but will directly help the company. "We like problems that have very low business risk and very high technical risk," Schroepfer said. "Meaning, we know what we will use this for, but we have no idea whether you can actually get it done."