It already uses AI techniques to identify people in photos, for example, and to decide which status updates and ads to show to each user. Facebook is also pushing into AI-powered digital assistants and chatbot programs which interact with users via short messages. Next week it is expected to open up its Messenger service (which can already be used to do things like order an Uber car), to broaden the range of chatbots. And Facebook's investment in VR—it bought Oculus, the cheerleader of this emerging field, for $2 billion in 2014—is a bold guess about where computing and communication will go after the smartphone.
But Facebook faces rivals in all these areas. Google is using AI techniques to improve its internet services and guide self-driving cars, and other industry giants are also investing heavily in AI—though with the deepest pockets and the most data to crunch, Facebook and Google can attract the best researchers and most promising startups. Facebook lags behind Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft when it comes to voice-driven personal assistants; when it comes to chatbots, it faces competition from Microsoft and a host of startups eager to prove that bots are the new apps. And its push into VR—which Mr Zuckerberg sees as a stepping stone to “augmented reality” (AR), where information is superimposed on the real world—pits it against formidable rivals, too. Microsoft has jumped straight to AR with its HoloLens headset, its most impressive product in years, and Google, already active in VR, has invested in Magic Leap, a little-known AR startup.
The scale of Facebook's ambition, and the rivalries it faces, reflect a consensus that these technologies will transform how people interact with each other, with data and with their surroundings. AI will help devices and services anticipate your needs (Google's Inbox app already suggests replies to your e-mails).
Conversational interfaces will let you look things up and get things done by chatting to a machine by voice or text. And intelligent services will spread into a plethora of products, such as wearable devices, cars and VR/AR goggles. In a decade's time computing seems likely to take the form of AR interfaces mediated by AI, using gestures and speech for inputs and the whole world as its display. Information will be painted onto the world around you, making possible new forms of communication, creativity and collaboration.
This is the ambitious vision that Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other technology giants are working towards. But along the way there are certain to be privacy and security concerns. Crunching all that information to provide personalised services looks a lot like surveillance, and will cause a backlash if consumers do not feel they are getting a good deal in return for handing over their personal details (as the advertising industry is discovering to its cost)—or if security is inadequate.
There will also be worries about concentration and monopoly, and the danger of closed ecosystems that make it hard for people to switch between services. Facebook's plan to offer free access to a limited subset of websites was blocked by India's telecoms regulator, which argued that it was “risky” to allow one company to act as a gatekeeper. And Germany's competition authority is investigating the way Facebook handles personal data. As its dominance grows, Facebook can expect to face more such cases, as Microsoft and Google did before it.
Striking a balance between becoming ever more intimately entwined in billions of peoples' lives, making huge profits as a result and avoiding a backlash will be one of the biggest business challenges of the century. Even in ancient Rome, emperors could find that the crowd suddenly turned against them. So applaud Mr Zuckerberg—and fear for him, too.