Besides virtual reality, laser-toting satellites and artificial intelligence, what other futuristic technologies is Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg interested in? Oh, you know, telepathy.
“One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like,” wrote Zuckerberg during his latest online “townhall QA”.
For some people, Facebook’s interest in telepathy will be part of a bold new world for digital communications.
For others, it’ll be the latest spur to build an ark and fill it with tin-foil hats ready for the endtimes: if the social network ever does work on this technology, it will face important questions about how it handles the resulting data, from protecting it from surveillance agencies to ring-fencing it from advertisers.
Zuckerberg proved unafraid to tackle questions about Facebook’s long-term ambitions during the QA, including the company’s interest in artificial intelligence.
“Most of our AI research is focused on understanding the meaning of what people share,” wrote Zuckerberg, citing examples including detecting when a photo has a certain friend in it and making sure they see it, or using people’s photos and posts to connect them with likeminded Facebook users.
“In order to do this really well, our goal is to build AI systems that are better than humans at our primary senses: vision, listening, etc.
For vision, we’re building systems that can recognise everything that’s in an image or a video. This includes people, objects, scenes, etc. These systems need to understand the context of the images and videos as well as whatever is in them.
For listening and language, we’re focusing on translating speech to text, text between any languages, and also being able to answer any natural language question you ask.”
Zuckerberg expanded on his thoughts on artificial intelligence in a later answer about how Facebook sees itself in a decade’s time.
“We’re working on AI because we think more intelligent services will be much more useful for you to use. For example, if we had computers that could understand the meaning of the posts in News Feed and show you more things you’re interested in, that would be pretty amazing,” he wrote.
“Similarly, if we could build computers that could understand what’s in an image and could tell a blind person who otherwise couldn’t see that image, that would be pretty amazing as well. This is all within our reach and I hope we can deliver it in the next 10 years.”
Zuckerberg also talked about Facebook’s investment in virtual reality, via its $2bn acquisition of startup Oculus VR, which will launch its headset in early 2016.
“We’re working on VR because I think it’s the next major computing and communication platform after phones,” wrote Zuckerberg.
“In the future we’ll probably still carry phones in our pockets, but I think we’ll also have glasses on our faces that can help us out throughout the day and give us the ability to share our experiences with those we love in completely immersive and new ways that aren’t possible today.”
VR is one way Zuckerberg would like to see news organisations delivering “more immersive content” beyond text, photos and 2D videos.
With Facebook emerging as a new gatekeeper for news – most recently with the launch of its Instant Articles program – he was questioned by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington about Facebook’s role.
“Making sure news organisations are delivering increasingly rich content is important and it’s what people want,” he wrote.
“On speed/frequency, traditional news is thoroughly vetted but this model has a hard time keeping us with important things happening constantly. There’s an important place for news organizations that can deliver smaller bits of news faster and more frequently in pieces. This won’t replace the longer and more researched work, and I’m not sure anyone has fully nailed this yet.”
Responding to a similar question from journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, Zuckerberg outlined how he sees Facebook’s role.
“When news is as fast as everything else on Facebook, people will naturally read a lot more news. That will be good for helping people be more informed about the world, and it will be good for the news ecosystem because it will deliver more traffic,” he wrote.
‘Real names make users safer’
Zuckerberg also fielded a question about Facebook’s policy on making people use their real names rather than pseudonyms – something highlighted recently when journalist Laurie Penny was banned from the social network for using a pseudonym to avoid being trolled with rape and death threats.
Facebook’s chief executive defended the company’s policy, with a claim that real names keep users safer:
“There are plenty of cases – for example, a woman leaving an abusive relationship and trying to avoid her violent ex-husband – where preventing the ex-husband from creating profiles with fake names and harassing her is important. As long as he’s using his real name, she can easily block him.”
The flipside of this, of course, is whether the woman leaving an abusive relationship and being harassed by an ex-husband might want to use a pseudonym, but Zuckerberg did not address this aspect. He did stress that Facebook does not want to force people to use their legal names.
“Real name does not mean your legal name. Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you. If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that,” he wrote.
Zuckerberg added that the company is working with the transgender community – which includes other prominent critics of the real-name policy – on refining its policies.