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All hail Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, king of the bots

The creator of the world's largest social network is betting on artificially intelligent software as the future of technology.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg was once the boy king of Silicon Valley. Now he wants to be the bot king of Silicon Valley.

Zuckerberg, who famously started Facebook in his dorm as a cherub-faced sophomore at Harvard, has said repeatedly that it's his mission to connect every person on the planet. Now we know that doesn't just mean connecting people to other people. It also means connecting them to...robots.

But not like you might think. We're not talking about physical robots roaming Tatooine. Instead, Zuckerberg is betting on chatbots, software powered by artificial intelligence that can perform simple tasks: compose an email, book travel plans or figure out why your cable just went out. Send a text to a chatbot in a messaging app, and the software automatically jumps into gear to serve you.

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Mark Zuckerberg announced a way for brands to build bots for Facebook Messenger.

James Martin/CNET

At least that's the takeaway from the keynote Tuesday in San Francisco during F8, Facebook's software conference that drew 2,000 developers this year.

The rise of bots underscores just how important AI is to the future of tech -- and how much Facebook needs to keep reinventing itself to keep its 1.6 billion users engaged. Chatbots, which have been around for decades, are the first step into a world where robots can help with everything from the mundane to major. Think everything from adding an appointment to your calendar to open heart surgery. Silicon Valley's biggest companies, including Google and Microsoft, have invested heavily in AI.

"I think advances in AI can help save peoples lives," Zuckerberg said. He pointed out that the AI used to develop social tools is the same kind doctors can use to save lives. So, he said, Facebook is open-sourcing its AI tools. "We can all make progress together."

For Facebook, the initiative is also about getting users to keep coming back. The more times you scroll through your News Feed or "like" a post, the more Facebook can push ads that contribute to its nearly $18 billion in annual sales. But there have been reports that people aren't sharing as much about their personal lives as they used to on the social network. Joining the bot wars is another way to engage people and could open up new ways for the company to make money.

The bots will be available for Facebook's Messenger app, which has 900 million users, and will perform simple tasks. That includes acting like a customer service rep, where you text your question instead of talking to someone on the phone.

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"I've never met anyone who likes calling businesses," Zuckerberg said.

Facebook is testing its own bot, called M, which will do things like make a restaurant reservation or send someone flowers. But, while M is artificially intelligent, it's also overseen by a human staff.

Facebook knows it can't build all the bots. That's why on Tuesday it announced a way for brands to build their own chatbots for Facebook Messenger. One of the ideas is to turn Messenger into an e-commerce hub, where people can buy things directly from bots made by big brands.

Zuckerberg won't only rule the robots while he's at work. He's trying to build an AI butler at home, too.

In January, he said his personal challenge for the year (he's become famous for these challenges; past ones included reading a book a week and only eating meat he's personally killed) was to build a software-powered helper to lend a hand around the house. Kind of like Jarvis, the digital assistant from "Iron Man." (Here he is coding while wearing a digital Iron Man mask.)

Facebook, in infographic form.

Ian Sherr and Justin Cauchon/CNET

On Tuesday, Zuckerberg also talked about Facebook's efforts in virtual reality and trying to bring Internet connections to remote parts of the world. Facebook's Free Basics service, which offers a limited version of the Internet (including Facebook), drew controversy in February after India rejected the offer. On stage, Zuckerberg announced a simulator so developers could see how their services would look on the platform.

Zuckerberg waxed poetic about virtual reality and said the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, a high-profile VR headset, is doing "really amazing." Zuckerberg said VR will eventually work its way to something as small as a pair of glasses. Facebook also unveiled a new camera rig for shooting 360-degree video, where a viewer can look up, down and all around in a scene, called Surround 360.

If Zuckerberg really becomes the new king of the bots, maybe he'll command them to make those announcements next year.