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article imageFacebook to shut down its 'M' digital assistant service

By James Walker     Jan 9, 2018 in Technology
Facebook has announced it's shutting down part of its "M" digital assistant. The AI, accessed through Messenger, offered a "virtual concierge" supported by human operators. The human element of the service is now being closed down after over two years.
M launched back in August 2015 and represented a unique take on AI-powered digital assistance. Rather than rely wholly on computer automation, M was supported by a team of humans who could answer complex queries it would otherwise have to reject. You could tell M to order goods online or book a restaurant table. If the assistant couldn't complete the task itself, one of its human operators could.
In practice, the assistant was infrequently used and functionally limited. Bot-based messaging as a whole is yet to take off in the way envisioned by tech firms like Facebook. In a statement to The Verge, Facebook referred to M as "an experiment." It added it will use what it's learnt from running M to "power other AI projects at Facebook."
M isn't going away entirely. The human-enhanced components exist independently of M's presence inside Facebook Messenger. Facebook has confirmed that M's core digital functions will remain online. The assistant provides "suggestions" inside Messenger conversations that can prompt you to perform actions without leaving your chat.
Screenshot of Facebook M  the digital assistant for Messenger powered by humans
Screenshot of Facebook M, the digital assistant for Messenger powered by humans
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By analysing what you're talking about, it can file reminders, send pre-populated responses or help you search the web. These suggestions show up automatically inside conversations so they're likely to see higher user engagement than the core M assistant. Facebook told The Verge it is "very pleased" with the performance of M suggestions.
M's shutdown indicates the ongoing problems with the bot economy. Despite growing attention from tech firms and businesses, consumers are still reluctant to engage with chatbots. Most people would prefer to visit a webpage or app themselves, even if it takes longer to complete the same task. Trust and confidence in chatbots is low and many people are unaware of the functionality that's available.
The human-assisted version of M was only ever launched to around 2,000 residents of California. Facebook cancelled its original plans to roll the service out broadly to all users. The human staff behind the service will be offered new jobs inside Facebook when M shuts down on January 19.
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