Wednesday 21 August 2019

'We're building a system that gives you a sense of place, of being anywhere you want in the world'

Mike Schroepfer from Faceboo speaking about 'Connecting the World' at the Web Summit at the RDS. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Mike Schroepfer from Faceboo speaking about 'Connecting the World' at the Web Summit at the RDS. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
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As chief technology officer jobs go, there are few bigger than Mike Schroepfer's. The 40-year-old former Firefox engineer holds the technical keys to the world's biggest social media company, Facebook. The decisions he makes affect 1.5 billion people every day. caught up with him to find out about new Facebook features, future developments and the tricky issue of data privacy developments in Europe.

Adrian Weckler: The European Court Of Justice recently ruled that data companies might have to soon prevent European users' data from travelling to the US. Technically, how would Facebook respond?

Mike Schroepfer: "One thing I'd ask you to consider is that the entire purpose of the product is to allow you to share what you want with your friends.

You upload a photo and share it with your friends.

Let's assume that one of your friends is American. In order for them to see that photo, we actually have to send it to them in America.

So I think a fundamental challenge with all of this is looking at the entire purpose of this product.

This is to give people the power to share things with other people. And for other people to see it, they have to be able to access this data. So it's a global network where you can interchange this data and that's the entire purpose of the product.

We're obviously following all of the regulations and all the rest of it, but that's essentially what we're trying to do. And it's not just Facebook. This goes for email, everything. It's about sending data."

So how would separating that data work, if the spirit of the ECJ ruling is to be followed?

"You know, I'm not exactly sure. Because our product is specifically designed to send your data to somebody else. We'll see how this pans out."

How is feedback to Facebook's 'Reactions' feature? (The feature - pictured - lets users leave emoticon comments such as smiling faces or angry faces to other users' posts and is currently being tested in Ireland and Spain.)

"So far, the initial data has been quite positive. The reaction from a lot of our employees is when can we ship this to the whole world? We're doing this carefully because it's a very big product and we want to make sure that people are happy with it before we bring it out.

But it gives you a wider spectrum of emotions to express, which gives people a lot more options. And it's fun. It's meant to be both more expressive and fun."

What, generally, is Facebook's big vision at the moment?

"We have a ten year technical vision which basically consists of three core parts and we're investing heavily in all three.

The first is building technologies to connect billions of people in the long term to the internet.

The second is building advanced artificial intelligence systems that help us manage huge volumes of data online.

The better we can build systems to understand that data the better.

And the third is virtual reality. This is Oculus. We're building a system that gives you a sense of place, of being anywhere you want in the world and then, more importantly, with other people.

So you can have a social experience in virtual reality or you can look at someone, give them a thumbs up or hand them objects even if they're not in the same room as you."

How close are we to common-place use of virtual reality headsets?

"It's not going to be an everyday item any time soon. I think this has incredible promise in the long run but it will start slow because the technology required to do this in the beginning is going to be, I think, expensive for the average person. The technology exists in an early form and it's an amazing experience. I think that next year people will be experiencing this. But it'll take time for it to be inexpensive and accessible enough to be anything near the scale of Facebook."

Travelling through a US airport last month, I saw someone with a Samsung Gear VR headset. People were pointing at him and some were even taking photos.

"Yeah, but he didn't care because he couldn't see them."

But does that go to a point about social utility of headsets?

"If you think about how you end up using these sorts of things, you're going to be using this in your living room or if in your airplane seat over the Atlantic. It will be no different to putting an eye mask on. So I think that the places that this will be used will make it easy for people to do it. We're investing heavily in this."

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