Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg sat down with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner for the German newspaper “Die Welt am Sonntag” last week in Berlin. Zuckerberg was given the first-ever Axel Springer Award for being an exceptional innovator and entrepreneur. This lightly edited Q&A is an excerpt from an interview given to Die Welt/Welt am Sonntag.
Mathias Döpfner: Mark, on Facebook we learned that you were jogging at the Brandenburg Gate this morning. How was it?
Mark Zuckerberg: It was good. It was the first time I have gone running in snow in 20 years. Whenever I go to a new city, in order to help get on the right time zone and actually get a chance to see that city, I like running so today was awesome.
Döpfner: It’s not your first time in Berlin.
Zuckerberg: No, and I love it. Berlin is one of my favorite cities in the world. I feel like the energy is very youthful. It has such an important history, including its recent history of unification. In a lot of ways Berlin is a symbol for me of Facebook’s mission: bringing people together, connecting people and breaking down boundaries.
Döpfner: How long did you run?
Zuckerberg: 4 miles today. It was a short run.
Döpfner: Do you think Berlin can play a role as a European hub for tech companies? I mean it’s now ranked 9th worldwide as a hub for startups.
Zuckerberg: Absolutely. Berlin definitely has one of the most vibrant of the startup scenes that I have seen. Not really just across Europe, but across the whole world in terms of cities. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Döpfner: Is it taken seriously in Silicon Valley?
Zuckerberg: Yes. Of course the Silicon Valley is unique and Berlin is not yet comparable. But of all the different cities that are building a startup infrastructure, Berlin is the one with the most similar energy. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a short period of time you have that kind of ecosystem growing here too.
Döpfner: So far Berlin is more about great ideas and not so much about big funding. Do you think that money follows ideas?
Zuckerberg: Yes, but it is not just money. If you think about companies that were built in Silicon Valley, a lot of them early on were chip companies. And now the companies that are there, like Apple, are much more successful than any of the chip companies were. So arguably you couldn’t have a company like Apple without first having that infrastructure of technology companies getting built up first. They are missing in Berlin. But the city is catching up.
Döpfner: Did Facebook or did you personally invest in a Berlin company so far?
Zuckerberg: I personally don’t invest in a lot of companies because I think it would be a conflict of interest and Facebook doesn’t typically either. When we do corporate transactions, we usually either just do business partnerships or buy companies entirely. But there are certainly many companies from Berlin that we have worked with deeply. So I mentioned Wooga before, a major developer on our platform, that built a bunch of games. And Dubsmash was one of the first companies we cooperated with for the Messenger platform. Soundcloud is another example.
Döpfner: You visited Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator this morning.
Zuckerberg: Yes. So I visited this program “Refugees on Rails” at REDI School of Digital Integration — which to me is the intersection of two things I care a lot about: one is this mission of connecting people and breaking down boundaries, and to me that’s what this refugee crisis has been all about and it is something I just admire about Germany’s leadership in the world.
When I look around the world and see so many countries turning people away, I think it is terrible. And I know that these are all issues that Germany is culturally dealing with in terms of integration but it is just something that I deeply admire. So I wanted to get a chance to meet some of those folks personally and hear their stories of what they left behind in Syria and how they originally started learning how to program. It was really touching! And then of course I really care about technology education — teaching people programming and those kinds of programs. That was really impressive to see.
Döpfner: Your current favorite topic is Virtual Reality. Why are you so certain that VR is not a hype?
Zuckerberg: There’s a long-term question and a short-term question on this. People often say that it is easier to predict the way things are going to be 10 to 20 years in the future than to predict how it is going to be 3 years from now. There are going to be a few big trends. AI will continue making progress, we will be able to cure a lot more diseases in the future. We all know that. The real art is being able to see how we get from here to there.
We are betting that Virtual Reality is going to be an important technology. I am pretty confident about this. And now is the time to invest. We just announced this week that there have already been one million hours of 360 video consumed in Gear VR and we just started shipping that with Samsung. So this is really encouraging.
I honestly don’t know is how long it will take to build this ecosystem. It could be 5 years, it could be 10 years, it could be 15 or 20. My guess is that it will be at least 10. It took 10 years to go from building the initial Smartphone to reaching the mass market. BlackBerry came out in 2003 and it didn’t get to about a billion units until 2013. So I can’t imagine it would be much faster for VR.
Döpfner: You invested 2 billion dollars with Facebook in Oculus Rift. Are you really interested in the hardware, the glasses? Please explain the VR strategy of Facebook.
Zuckerberg: We’re mostly interested in the software. But there is a time early on in the development of any new platform where you really need to do the hardware and the software at the same time. Only later does specialization become valuable. So you get a company that is really good at the hardware, and one that is really good at software. Everything is changing quickly enough that you kind of want the iteration to be linked. Which is why we also take care of the hardware; although our long-term role will be in the field of software.
Döpfner: And with Oculus Rift you are also developing the technology that you are now delivering to Samsung for the Gear rollout — is that correct?
Zuckerberg: Exactly. And Gear will probably ship many more units than Rift.
Döpfner: You are shipping the technology, although both are competitors, because you want to establish VR globally as quickly as possible, or did I get it wrong?
Zuckerberg: Exactly. They are different price points and quality.
Döpfner: 600 dollars versus 100 for Samsung, yeah?
Zuckerberg: Yes. Although to be honest, the Rift is even more expensive than 600 because it requires a very powerful PC to run. So that PC, unless you already have a powerful PC, costs another 1000 dollars.
Döpfner: … so you ask yourself, why should anyone buy Oculus Rift?
Zuckerberg: Because it provides a much, much, better experience.
Zuckerberg: Because VR is a very intense visual experience and having the most powerful PC is the only way to deliver certain experiences. So for example, we have experiences running in Rift where you are not only looking around, but you have hands where you can manipulate objects in real time.
You are playing Ping Pong or interacting with someone and the technology needs to be fast enough so that when you do something, it triggers and sends that action all the way across the Internet to someone else. That just requires a lot more processing power to do well.
Döpfner: How big is it going to be, the VR business? I saw Goldman Sachs predicting it is going to be an 80 billion dollar business.
Zuckerberg: We are betting on two trends. First that people will always want more immersive ways to express themselves. So if you go back ten years ago on the internet, most of what people shared and consumed was text. Now a lot of it is photos. I think, going forward, a lot of it is going to be videos, getting richer and richer.
But that is not the end. In the future, I think you are going to want to capture a whole scene, a room, to be able to transport to that. To be able to stream what you are doing live and have people be able to interact in that space.
Döpfner: Could you imagine that one day the most frequent type of conversation will be the VR chat? That people are going to chat with each other like that?
Döpfner: Do you have any idea when that will be?
Zuckerberg: I am not sure. I think the challenge is that it would have to be meaningfully better than a video conference to be worth it. But I think you could build a simple version of it pretty soon.
So the one trend is going towards increasing richness. The other trend is the development of more and more immersive and powerful computing platforms.
We started off with servers that were the size of buildings and someone needed a degree to be able to run them.
Then you got the PC which was this big tower and people didn’t really like using it but it could do a bunch of stuff. Then we got phones, which people love using and almost everyone has them.
But it is still kind of awkward to have to take it out of your pocket and the screen is not that big or immersive. So I do think a new computing platform always emerges every 10 or 15 years. VR is currently the most promising candidate.
Döpfner: A couple of days ago there was a striking picture of you in Barcelona: You were walking on a stage and no one recognized you because they were all wearing these VR glasses. You were smiling and seemed to enjoy it. Critics are now saying that this example shows that the virtual reality experience is isolating because it is no longer a collective experience. How do you react to these concerns?
Zuckerberg: Nothing could be further from the truth. The exact opposite is the case. What was going inside the headsets was a video of children playing soccer in some faraway place. You could look around and you could see the kids playing soccer around you and it was a shared experience with everyone in that place that would have been impossible experience otherwise. It would have kind of been like going to a movie but a much more personal thing where you are all actually in it.
I think people tend to be worried about every new technology that comes along. Critics worry that if we spend time paying attention to that new kind of media or technology instead of talking to each other that that is somehow isolating. But humans are fundamentally social. So I think in reality, if a technology doesn’t actually help us socially understand each other better, it isn’t going to catch on and succeed.
You could probably go all the way back to the first books. I bet people said ‘why should you read when you could talk to other people?’ The point of reading is that you get to deeply immerse yourself in a person’s perspective. Right? Same thing with newspapers or phones or TVs. Soon it will be VR, I bet.
Döpfner: A couple of weeks ago I met an Israeli entrepreneur, a neuro scientist, who said that he is developing a technology he says could create VR experiences without headsets in a couple of years, as a kind of hologram in free space. It sounded fascinating, but also pretty science fiction.
Zuckerberg: I think we will eventually get there. I don’t know how long or how far out that is. The vision eventually is to have normal looking glasses that can either give you a fully immersive experience or that can just display information as you are walking around your day.
Yes, there are people who are making progress on a number of questions but I still think there are some fundamental issues of optical science that need to get resolved. Then, once you have that, then you need to figure out how to actually manufacture these experiences at scale.
If a product costs $10,000 or $20,000 it has limited use. This is what the first computers cost! Only when almost everyone is able to afford it will it be a real thing. My guess is that’s many years out.
Döpfner: From a Facebook perspective, what is the next big trend after Virtual Reality?
Zuckerberg: I think about our work on three time horizons. There’s the products and parts of the business which are at scale now.
That’s Facebook and News Feed, Instagram, to some degree WhatsApp. Then, for the next five years, there are a handful of new challenges that we need to figure out and video is probably the biggest one.
I think video is a mega trend, almost as big as mobile.
Then there is the 10 year horizon — really far-out stuff. And for that we are investing in three big areas. One is connectivity — making sure that everyone in the world has access to the internet. This is a big deal because today only 3 of 7 billion people have access to the internet. If you live in an area where there is not a good school, the internet may be the best way to get access to a lot of education material. The same is true if there is not a good doctor — the internet may be the best way to get access to health.
The second area is AI. We expect a lot of progress that will lead to really great things in society: reduction in car accidents from self-driving cars, better diagnoses for diseases. Better ability to precisely treat diseases will lead to greater safety and health and many other things. And the third area is this next computing platform which we believe is VR and augmented reality. So these are things I think we are going to be working on for a decade or more.
Döpfner: How will Artificial Intelligence change society?
Zuckerberg: From my experience, there are really two ways that people learn. One is called supervised learning and the other is unsupervised. You can think of supervised learning as they way you read a children’s book to your son or daughter and point out everything.
Here’s a bird, here’s a dog, there’s another dog. By pointing things out, a child can eventually understand ‘oh that’s a dog’ because you told me 15 times that that was a dog. So that’s supervised learning. It’s really pattern recognition. And that’s all we know how to do today.
The other, the unsupervised learning, is the way most people will learn in the future. You have this model of how the world works in your head and you’re refining it to predict what you think is going to happen in the future. Using that to inform what your actions are and you kind of have some model: Okay, I am going to take some actions and I expect this to happen in the world based on my action. AI will help us with this.
Döpfner: Can you understand the concerns that business magnate Elon Musk has expressed in that context? He seriously fears that artificial intelligence could one day dominate and take over the human brain, that the machine would be stronger than men. You think that is a valid fear or do you think it’s hysterical?
Zuckerberg: I think it is more hysterical.
Döpfner: How can we make sure that computers and robots are serving people and not the other way around?
Zuckerberg: I think that the default is that all the machines that we build serve humans so unless we really mess something up I think it should stay that way.
Döpfner: But in chess, Garry Kasparov was beaten by the computer Big Blue in the end. So there may be more and more situations where a computer is simply smarter than a human brain.
Zuckerberg: Yes, but in that case people built that machine to do something better than a human can. There are many machines throughout history that were built to do something better than a human can. I think this is an area where people overestimate what is possible with AI.
Just because you can build a machine that is better than a person at something doesn’t mean that it is going to have the ability to learn new domains or connect different types of information or context to do superhuman things. This is critically important to appreciate.
Döpfner: So this is science fiction fantasy and is not going to happen in real life and we don’t need to worry about the safety of human intelligence?
Zuckerberg: I think that along the way, we will also figure out how to make it safe. The dialogue today kind of reminds me of someone in the 1800s sitting around and saying: one day we might have planes and they may crash. Nonetheless, people developed planes first and then took care of flight safety. If people were focused on safety first, no one would ever have built a plane.
This fearful thinking might be standing in the way of real progress. Because if you recognize that self-driving cars are going to prevent car accidents, AI will be responsible for reducing one of the leading causes of death in the world. Similarly, AI systems will enable doctors to diagnose diseases and treat people better, so blocking that progress is probably one of the worst things you can do for making the world better.
Döpfner: This is exactly what Elon Musk is pushing with his company Tesla. Nevertheless he is afraid of the uncontrolled development of Artificial Intelligence in the hands of very few people and megacorporations. In this case, it is an American who has the worries. Usually this is the European position: you see the risks and the downsides first and then you see the opportunities. Is there a difference in mentality between Americans and Europeans in that context?
Zuckerberg: I am not sure I would generalize that broadly. There are people who are hopeful and people who are more skeptical all over the world.
Döpfner: Your daughter Max is to have a robot nanny. What do you expect from the robot?
Zuckerberg: I am basically building this very basic AI system to control my home. So I can tell it to turn off all of the lights or let this person in through the gate or it can see when I am coming in and expect me and it can open the gate. Really basic stuff honestly. But using some modern AI systems of voice recognition, image recognition, pattern recognition systems that modern AIs can do. A lot of this for me, it’s a personal challenge, so I love coding and building things.
Döpfner: You still do code yourself?
Zuckerberg: I do. As a personal challenge for myself.
I don’t do it for Facebook because we have this rule at Facebook that if you check in code than you have to support it.
Which means if there is a bug in your code than you have to drop everything you’re doing and go fix it.
Döpfner: Which of course you can’t do.
Zuckerberg: And I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to leave some other commitment or worse I am rude and someone else has to support my stuff. I stopped coding for Facebook a while ago.
Döpfner: But you do it as a private hobby, so to speak?
Zuckerberg: Exactly. I like staying in touch with the state of the technology and this is just a cool way of doing that.
Döpfner: When and why did you get the idea to launch Facebook?
Zuckerberg: You know, it’s this funny idea in society that there is a moment where you have an idea and then you kind of create something from that. I don’t actually think that that’s the way a lot of things work in the world.
Döpfner: So, the myth that you did it because you wanted to date girls is not correct.
Zuckerberg: No, no, no. That’s the film version.
Döpfner: “Social Network”
Zuckerberg: Hollywood has nothing to do with real life.
Döpfner: I mean you were already dating Priscilla in 2003. Facebook was founded in 2004.
Zuckerberg: Exactly. When I was in college, I remember thinking to myself, this internet thing is awesome because you can look up anything you want, you can read news, you can download music, you can watch movies, you can find information on Google, you can get reference material on Wikipedia, except the thing that is most important to humans, which is other people, was not there.
There was no tool where you could go and learn about other people. I didn’t know how to build that so instead I started building little tools. And when I was in college I stated off and built this tool because I wanted to know what classes I should take so I wanted to know what classes other people would take and were interested in.
I built out this little tool that listed what classes you were taking and it was called Coursematch. The thing that was fascinating is within a week, so many people were using it and it was just text. And then I kept on building more and more things just like that. I did build the Facematch thing that was in the movie, but that was just a prank.
Döpfner: But how did it become Facebook?
Zuckerberg: For the final the class — called the “Rome of Augustus”, it was an art history class — there were all theses pieces of art in the class and they were going to show you a handful and you would need to write an essay about the historical significance of that piece of art.
I hadn’t paid much attention in the class because I was programming other things so when it came time for the final I was like oh I am screwed, I don’t know any of this stuff.
So as a study tool I built a little service that showed you at random one of the pieces of art and let you enter what you thought was significant from an art history perspective. So I sent it out to the email list for the class and said hey I have a study tool, and everyone just filled in what is significant about all the pieces of art and it ended up being this great social study tool.
I think the grades on the test that year were higher than they had been in the past. So there were all these different projects, I probably did like 10 different things like this when I was at Harvard. I thought I should put some of this stuff together to create a tool where people can share whatever they want with the people around them. And that was how the first version of Facebook came.
Döpfner: How long did the development take?
Zuckerberg: It only took me two weeks to build the first version of Facebook because I had so much stuff before then.
Döpfner: And of course, you probably hadn’t the idea that this could transform into a three hundred billion dollar company?
Zuckerberg: No, not at all.
Döpfner: When did you sense that it could be really a big thing?
Zuckerberg: You know I actually remember very specifically the night that I launched Facebook at Harvard. I used to go out to get pizza with a friend who I did all my computer science homework with. And I remember talking to him and saying I am so happy we have this at Harvard because now our community can be connected but one day someone is going to build this for the world.
And I didn’t even think it might be us. It was not like, oh I hope we can turn this into something big. In my mind there was no way this is going to be us. It was going to be someone else we are just college students. When I look back on the last twelve years, what has been the most surprising it’s that no one else did it. And I ask myself, why no one else did it.
Zuckerberg: I just think it’s because there were all these little reasons not to do it. You know people at every step of the way said “Oh that’s just for young people” so they didn’t work on it as much as they could. Or, “Fine, a bunch of people are using it, but it will never make any money.” Or, “Oh it works in the US but it is not going to work around the world.” Or, “Oh it works but it is not going to work on mobile.” All these different reasons, you know how it is.
Döpfner: And you just did it.
Döpfner: What is Facebook going to look like in 10 years? Do you have an idea?
Zuckerberg: If we make a lot of progress on connectivity and AI and VR and AR, then I think we live in a world where the majority of people are on the internet, so our community will be much bigger.
I think people will have richer tools to share and experience life.
The ability to share whole scenes form our lives will be a valuable thing over time. One example that Priscilla and I talk about is how do we want to capture when Max takes her first steps. I want to capture the whole scene. I want a 360-degree camera so if parents and my family aren’t there they can feel like they were there. I think this will be possible soon.
Döpfner: Where’s the limit for Facebook? Do you see any limit?
Zuckerberg: We are very focused on our mission of giving people the power to share in the ways that they want and connecting everyone in the world.
Döpfner: What is the biggest risk for Facebook? Is your worst enemy your own success in a way?
Zuckerberg: I think it always is. Companies face a handful of different risks, whether it is competitors or different market environments. But I think that people focus way too much on competitors and not enough on their own execution. And I think if we just do a good job executing, then that to me is by far the biggest variable in what we achieve.
Döpfner: Is Facebook a distribution platform or a publisher?
Zuckerberg: Definitely a distribution platform.
Döpfner: Why don’t you want to become a publisher?
Because we’re a technology company. I think the platform is the core of our product that people use to share and consume media, but we ourselves are not a media company. That’s why this partnership strategy of working with others who know better how to create exciting contents is so crucial. We want to remain a technology company.
Döpfner: How do you perceive the hate speech debate in this context?
Zuckerberg: While we generally believe in free speech and giving everyone as much ability to speak as possible, in practice there are lots of barriers to that, whether it’s legal restrictions, technological restrictions or you can’t share what you want if you don’t have access to the internet.
And there are social restrictions where someone could be suppressing someone else’s freedom to express themselves. So our North Star is that we want to give the most voice possible to the most people.
Of course, hate speech and racism have no place on Facebook. We have clear Community Standards and teams to enforce them. In addition, we work closely with governments and local organizations to be certain we are applying the Standards appropriately for local conditions and to identify and remove hateful or threatening content.
For example, in light of the threatening speech directed towards migrants in Germany, we now remove that content from our service.
Döpfner: And also not to decide what more than a billion users read or not. This would be editorial work, the task of a publisher. I think it would be a much greater threat if a global company with more than a billion users per day used subjective criteria to determine who may read and write what. This is why the debate is misleading. For a technological communications platform, the sole restrictive framework should be the framework of the laws.
Zuckerberg: You and I agree, however, not everyone shares our view.
Döpfner: The international European headquarters of Facebook is in Ireland. To avoid paying taxes in European markets?
Zuckerberg: No. There are a number of reasons why Dublin is a pretty good place. One is that we are still primarily an English-speaking company so having the headquarters in a place where the majority of people speak English is good. We’ve made significant investments in Ireland with over 1000 employees, a new headquarters and now building a state of the art, sustainable data centre.
Döpfner: Last year Facebook paid 4327 GBP in taxes in Great Britain. You do see how the tax debate is an issue, right?
Zuckerberg: I think that the tax situation needs to be worked out between the countries themselves.
In my experience everyone will have a different view of the right level of tax so governments need to provide clear guidance that conforms to a set of international standards that all governments accept. Like any responsible company with international operations, European or American, we abide by those rules and comply with tax laws in the countries where we operate.
But I think it’s also important to look at the contribution and investments we make in Europe. Just this month in Germany we opened a new office, we announced a partnership on Artificial Intelligence with TU Berlin, and we invested in a German based community operations centre.
Döpfner: Do you understand the European concerns about data protection, data privacy? Is it a cultural clash between the US and Europe?
Zuckerberg: I think this is really tricky. Some of it I think is a deep cultural thing where the history in Europe I think has made people very sensitive to a lot of these issues.
Döpfner: Because of the Holocaust and how Nazis, and also the GDR dealt with people’s data.
Döpfner: America doesn’t have these historic traumas.
Zuckerberg: Right. And it’s recent. It’s not hundreds of years old. So that is something that I think culturally is just much more sensitive. And we can acknowledge and try to understand that sensitivity, but without being here, I think it is difficult to fully internalize that viewpoint.
Döpfner: It is only historical style or also in response to very current developments?
Zuckerberg: Yes. I think it is also about very contemporary conflicts between governments. With some of the issues around the Snowden leaks and what the NSA was doing I think have scared people around the world and I think in many ways rightfully so. I think that there are real questions there. So it’s a tough environment to navigate. A company like Facebook is at the intersection of a lot of these questions and we just try to do the best to act responsibly.
Döpfner: The Sons of the Caliphate Army from ISIS published a hate video against you and Jack Dorsey. What does it feel to be a victim of these terrorists in a way, so far only verbally?
Zuckerberg: I am not sure. I am very concerned but not because of the video. There have been worse threats. A number of years ago where someone in Pakistan was trying to get me sentenced to death because a member of our community created a group encouraging people to draw picture of the prophet Mohammed which is illegal in Pakistan.
But the Pakistani government wanted us to take down the content across the world which of course we weren’t going to. I think the bigger issue is that what Facebook stands for in the world is giving people a voice and spreading ideas and rationalism.