Facebook on Tuesday extended its reach beyond online socializing by building artificial-intelligence powered "bots" into its Messenger application to allow businesses to have software engage in lifelike text exchanges.
The move announced at the leading online social network's annual developers conference in San Francisco came as the number of monthly users of Messenger topped 900 million and the Silicon Valley company works to stay in tune with mobile Internet lifestyles.
"We think you should be able to text message a business like you would a friend, and get a quick response," Facebook co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg said as he announced that developers can build bots that could even be better than real people at natural language text conversations.
Bots are software infused with the ability to "learn" from conversations, getting better at figuring out what people are telling them and how best to respond.
The bots could help Facebook over time monetize its messaging applications and get a start on what some see as a new way of interacting with the digital world, potentially shortcutting mobile applications and sidestepping search
"Our goal with artificial intelligence is to build systems that are better than people at perception -- seeing, hearing, language and so on," Zuckerberg said while laying out a long-term vision for Facebook.
Artificial intelligence is already used in Messenger to recognize faces in pictures, suggesting recipients for messages and for filtering out spam texts.
"Soon, we are going to be able to do even more," Zuckerberg said.
He promised a future in which Facebook AI would be able to understand what is in pictures, video, or news articles and use those insights to recommend content members of the social network might like.
Bot-building capabilities will be in a test, or beta, mode with Facebook approving creations before they are released, according to vice president of messaging products David Marcus.
Tools made available on Tuesday included one for the creation of "high-end, self-learning bots" along with ways for them to be brought to people's attention at Messenger, Marcus said.
"If you want to build more complex bots, you can now use our bot engine," Marcus told a packed audience of developers.
"You feed it samples of conversation, and it's better over time. You can build your bot today."
Facebook last week began using artificial intelligence to help people with visual impairments enjoy photos posted at the leading social network.