Facebook Inc on Tuesday extended its reach beyond online socializing by building artificial-intelligence (AI) powered “bots” into its Messenger application to allow businesses to have software engage in lifelike text exchanges.
The move announced at the leading online social network’s annual developers conference in San Francisco came as the number of monthly users of Messenger topped 900 million and the Silicon Valley company works to stay in tune with mobile Internet lifestyles.
“We think you should be able to text message a business like you would a friend, and get a quick response,” Facebook cofounder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said as he announced that developers can build bots that could be more efficient than people at natural language text conversations.
Bots are software infused with the ability to “learn” from conversations, improving their ability to figure out what people are telling them and how best to respond.
The bots could help Facebook over time monetize its messaging applications and get a start on what some see as a new way of interacting with the digital world, potentially shortcutting mobile applications and sidestepping search.
“Our goal with artificial intelligence is to build systems that are better than people at perception — seeing, hearing, language and so on,” Zuckerberg said, while laying out Facebook’s long-term vision.
Artificial intelligence is already used in Messenger to recognize faces in pictures, suggesting recipients for messages and for filtering out spam texts.
“Soon, we are going to be able to do even more,” Zuckerberg said.
He promised a future in which Facebook AI would be able to understand what is in pictures, video or news articles and use insights to recommend content members of the social network might like.
Bot-building capabilities are to be in a test mode, with Facebook approving creations before they are released. A list of partners launching Messenger bots includes Business Insider, which said it would use the technology to deliver news stories to people in real-time.
“We are excited about this new offering, because we know that messaging apps are exploding in popularity,” Business Insider said in a story on its Web site announcing the move.
Cloud-computing star Salesforce plans to use the platform to help businesses have “deeper, more personalized and one-to-one customer journeys within the chat experience,” Salesforce president and chief product officer Alex Dayon said.
Zuckerberg laid out a future for Facebook that, aside from Messenger, included ramping up live video streaming and diving into virtual reality.
“We think we are at the edge of the golden age of video,” Zuckerberg said.
Messenger and Live are to be built out further in coming years, along with virtual-reality technology at Facebook-owned Oculus, he said.
Zuckerberg said that when his daughter takes her first steps, he plans to record the moment using a 360° camera so that his family and friends can experience it in virtual reality as if they were there for the moment.
At one point, Zuckerberg’s comments took on a political tone, with the Facebook head maintaining that a mission to connect the world is more important than ever given rhetoric about building walls and fearing those who are different.
“If the world starts to turn inward, then our community will have to work even harder to bring people together,” Zuckerberg said.
“Instead of building walls, we can build bridges,” he added, in an apparent reference to the fiery rhetoric of Republican US presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
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