Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg balances metaverse efforts with generative AI push

Last month, internal chatter about Meta’s investments in artificial intelligence reached such a fever pitch that some employees began to wonder if the company was pivoting away from virtual reality.

During a company-wide meeting in April with senior executives, employees raised a question on the topic: Do we still care about the metaverse? The workers were told the answer was yes.

That Meta workers even had to ask was remarkable. It was less than two years ago that Mark Zuckerberg renamed the company he founded as Facebook to Meta, betting the future on the immersive digital realms called “the metaverse”.

Now Meta’s CEO is trying to projecting the social media giant as a serious player in artificial intelligence, as an arms race to command the burgeoning technology grips Silicon Valley. While Microsoft, Google and a host of startups have pushed out chatbots and other crazy innovations using generative artificial intelligence, a form of the technology that can produce human-like original content, Meta seems to be playing catch-up.

Two of the generative AI projects, including Galatica, a large-language model for synthesizing scientific research, and its all-purpose BlenderBot 3 chatbot, faced negative publicity when the models spewed inaccurate and hateful rhetoric. The company quickly halted the public demo of Galatica while BlenderBot failed to gain much traction. Since then, the company has introduced more mundane innovations, including advertising tools.

Zuckerberg backed artificial intelligence as a driving force behind Meta’s revenue growth last quarter, after nearly a year of dismal financial results.

“Our AI work is delivering great results across the apps and the business,” Zuckerberg said in a statement last month at the time of the earnings release.

Meta begins cutting 10,000 workers in second round of layoffs

The meta boss has forcefully denied his newfound attention to AI signals that the company is less committed to its larger metaverse efforts. In fact, Zuckerberg has argued that AI is fundamental to the metaverse, and will be a critical tool for creating more dynamic and accessible virtual reality-driven experiences. For example, less tech-savvy users will be able to use generative AI to create their own new worlds in Meta’s virtual reality-powered apps.

But both Wall Street and workers will be watching to see how Zuckerberg prioritizes investing in both technologies as he tries to boost the company’s financial performance and employee morale.

“It is critical that Meta outlines its strategy, how it will monetize it and flex its muscles to show that it is also a major AI player,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives. They should demonstrate “they are not sitting at the children’s table with Microsoft, Google and Apple at the adult table.”

The rhetoric about AI has confused some employees and investors about the company’s core focus, as a series of news articles and analysts ponder whether the metaverse is dead and Zuckerberg is walking away from his multibillion-dollar investment.

Some workers expressed frustration that the company’s direction is convoluted as it supports AI while cutting back on jobs and other projects, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. Other workers rushed to receive an internal notice for AI-related jobs, a way to confidently position themselves for the company’s next big effort, one of the people said.

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On Thursday, the company announced that it is launching AI Sandbox, which enables marketers to use AI to create more text and visual options for ads. Meta executives said the product will help marketers more effectively target their ads to different types of consumers by experimenting with extremely subtle changes to copy, images and backgrounds.

For example, an ad may gain more attention among women under 35 if the company’s logo is depicted on top of a blurred cityscape instead of a snowy mountain. Meta also announced Meta Lattice, a new AI-powered model to improve the performance of its ads on its networks.

But these products are far more modest than those that have been championed by competitors in recent months. On Wednesday, Google announced that it would begin answering some searches directly by generating its own results, drawing from sources around the web, rather than linking and summarizing from other sites as it has done for two decades.

The strategic shift could transform users’ experience of the internet while increasing the number of publishers and content creators who rely on Google for traffic. Google’s announcement followed pressure from investors urging the company to catch up with Microsoft, which had already incorporated ChatGPT into its own search engine, Bing.

Google is changing the way we search with AI. It can upgrade the network.

Meta seems to be taking a more reserved path.

In February, the company announced that it was forming a new product group to “turbocharge” the use of generative AI. The group, led by former Apple CEO Ahmed Al-Dahle, aims to bring together key teams from research and consumer-focused groups to create new products, according to the company. Zuckerberg has said he expects to build generative AI-powered chat experiences in WhatsApp and Messenger, as well as innovations in business messaging and customer support.

On the research front, Meta has long been a player in artificial intelligence. The company’s laboratory stands out in the industry for publishing much of its research. Research projects include technology that uses AI to animate children’s drawings, decode speech from images of brain activity and enable real-time translation of most languages.

Some believe Meta’s new focus on AI could help overcome threats to the ad-based business model. Increasing competition in the social media market from upstarts like TikTok and new privacy rules from Apple have hurt the digital advertising market.

Meta is starting a new round of job cuts among highly skilled employees

Zuckerberg credited AI last month for getting people to spend more time on Instagram, as the company promotes social short-form videos called Reels. And he reminded investors during an earnings call that artificial intelligence guides how the company recommends content to users, delivers ads to consumers and removes rule-breaking and offensive content — systems the company has “worked on for many, many years.”

But Meta executives have tried in recent weeks to push back on claims that their investment strategy has changed dramatically.

“A narrative has developed that we’re somehow moving away from focusing on the metaverse vision, so I’ll just say up front that’s not accurate,” Zuckerberg said last month. “We have focused on both AI and the metaverse for many years now, and we will continue to focus on both.”

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