Facebook CTO talks future tech breakthroughs

Jack Stenglein

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer has big plans for the future.


Schroepfer spoke Thursday at the AT&T Conference Center about three of the biggest tech breakthroughs possible in the next decade — planetary connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality — as well as how Facebook is involved in those fields. 


Schroepfer said that planetary connectivity, or connecting everyone to the Internet, is Facebook’s first focus. 


“The real interesting problem is connecting the people who are completely unconnected,” Schroepfer said during his talk. “Most people in the world still don’t have Internet access, which is unfathomable to most of us here. (The reason is that) it’s incredibly expensive to build Internet infrastructure.”


He added that Facebook has created open-air cooled data centers that are extremely power efficient, so that serving data to users is more economical. However, the problem does not end there.


In more rural areas, infrastructure needs to move from the ground to the sky, Schroepfer said. Facebook is developing unmanned, electric, solar-powered aircrafts designed to stay aloft for months at a time. Three of these aircrafts circling can transmit a wireless signal that others can use to connect to the Internet. 


Schroepfer said Facebook’s next focus is artificial intelligence, or AI. The company recently deployed two features using AI. The first is automatic caption generation for uploaded photos, which creates and reads photo captions for vision-impaired users. The second feature is called style transfer, which takes the style of a painting and applies it to any photograph. Despite these features, Schroepfer said there is still a long way to go.


“All of these improvements are happening at a rapid pace and that’s why I’m so excited about AI right now,” Schroepfer said. “But we’re missing one really key part of AI, something that we do all the time: predicting the future. Computers are surprisingly bad at it.”


Patrick Edelen, electrical and computer engineering freshman, said he thought the AI portion of the talk was the most engaging.


“I liked how (Schroepfer) showed how far AI still has to come,” Edelen said. “When everyone was thinking, ‘Oh no, AI is already solved,’ he showed how computers may be good at faking it but they still lack actual understanding, like not knowing a plane on the runway versus a plane crash.”


Schroepfer said Facebook launched its last area of research in virtual reality, or VR, after the company acquired Oculus in 2014. He said that VR has many surprising and amazing applications, but it is too complicated and expensive for widespread use: Facebook’s goal is to make it something that everyone can use. 


He added that many question why Facebook is interested in VR at all, but that he thinks the answer is clear.


“At the end of the day, Facebook is trying to connect people,” Schroepfer said. “How many of you have a loved one that lives far away? The entire room. If I said to you, ‘I have the best technology possible to feel like you’re really with that person,’ would you buy that technology?”