Mark Zuckerberg has spent the last nine months on the ropes as his company made major cuts to its workforce and struggled to gain mainstream traction with its ambitious virtual reality plans.
On Thursday, he told Meta employees how he plans to get the company back on track. In an all-hands meeting, Mr. Zuckerberg offered an explanation for the recent layoffs and laid out for the first time a vision of how Meta’s work in artificial intelligence will merge with its plans for virtual reality, which it calls a metaverse.
Mr Zuckerberg’s speech was an attempt to rally staff after the most tumultuous period in his company’s 18-year history. The CEO said he made “difficult decisions” about the layoffs in order to “build a better technology company” that delivers better products, faster — something he says Meta is not doing well as it swelled to more than 80,000 employees at the peak of the pandemic.
“I want us to use this period to rebuild and develop our culture,” he said, according to two people who attended the meeting and shared the remarks with The New York Times.
Mr. Zuckerberg made the remarks in a roughly 15-minute address to thousands of employees at Metta’s campus in Menlo Park, California. The conversation, held at an outdoor pavilion the company calls Hacker Square, was also live-streamed to tens of thousands of employees around the world.
It was one of Meta’s few major meetings in the past three years and featured presentations from other Meta executives, including Andrew Bosworth, Chief Technology Officer, and Chris Cox, Chief Product Officer.
Although Meta has been working aggressively on AI for several years, it has been slower than rivals such as Google and Microsoft to turn that research into consumer products. Mr Zuckerberg on Thursday detailed plans for artificially intelligent “agents” to help people across all of Meta’s apps, including WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.
He said Meta will work on creating AI models that are accessible to more people than those of his company’s competitors and will eventually fit into his plans for the metaverse.
“Democratizing access is consistent with our product vision of enabling more AI, not a single AI,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to the two people who shared the remarks with The Times. “Our goal is to create new AI products that support and extend the human connection.”
He envisioned AI assistants that help people “create content to express themselves and their ideas that much better,” or perhaps some artificially intelligent version of “a coach that gives advice and encourages” people, when they feel bad.
AI agents can serve customers in products like WhatsApp, the globally popular messaging app that Meta is focused on making into an important tool for business owners and customer service. And any business can use a custom AI algorithm.
“Different people have different interests, and we’re going to need a diverse set of AI to represent all those different interests,” Mr Zuckerberg said at the meeting.
To do this, the company is betting heavily on open source technology, meaning it will share its AI work with researchers who want to build their own algorithms with what Meta has already done. The company has spent billions over the past decade building AI management systems and bringing top researchers to work on some of the world’s toughest computer science questions around AI
Meta has been criticized for its approach. Researchers and policymakers outside the company say opening up AI algorithms to many others could spawn malicious, automated and intelligent systems that accelerate the spread of misinformation. Critics say these complex algorithms should be tightly controlled.
In his address, Mr. Zuckerberg defended Metta’s strategy. He said open source software allows for greater external scrutiny of the technology because it can be seen by millions of technologists. He said that working closely with outsiders’ progress will make Meta’s platforms better.
Mr Zuckerberg also said he hoped for a world where people could create as many different AI programs as they wanted, rather than relying on a few provided by two or three big tech companies.
That doesn’t mean Meta is abandoning its eponymous plans for a metaverse, Mr. Zuckerberg said. Programs using new generative AI technology, he said, could eventually help people build new elements and experiences in the virtual world. And he said the company plans to bring its AI assistant into the next version of its smart glasses. (Meta released a pair of Ray-Ban smart glasses in 2021, though sales have been slow.)
He also took a swipe at Apple’s recently announced Vision Pro headset, $3,500 high-tech glasses that promised to usher in a new era of “spatial computing.”
“I was really curious to see what they were going to deliver, and it’s a good sign for our own development that they don’t have magic solutions to the laws of physics that we haven’t already explored,” he said in his remarks. Mr. Zuckerberg criticized the device’s high-quality materials and price, while noting that Meta has spent years bringing down the price of its headphones for an upcoming version that will start at $500.
“Their announcement really shows how our vision and values are different and what’s at stake in shaping this platform,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “Our vision of the metaverse and presence is fundamentally social and about people interacting and feeling closer in new incredible ways. In contrast, every demo Apple showed was someone sitting alone on a couch.