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article imageFacebook announces 'M' — a human-powered virtual assistant

By James Walker     Aug 27, 2015 in Technology
Facebook has announced its own virtual assistant to rival Siri, Cortana and Google Now. 'M' will live inside Messenger and is supervised and enhanced by real people, giving it a unique advantage over its all-digital competitors.
'M' was rumoured to be in development under the name of 'Moneypenny' a few months ago. Yesterday, Facebook's head of messaging David Marcus announced that an early version of the service will be rolled out to some users in the Bay Area for open testing.
M uses the same chat view in Messenger as conversations with contacts. Users type a message to M and the assistant replies with its response. The service is designed to complete tasks and find information on behalf of the user.
Those tasks include purchasing items, delivering gifts to friends, booking restaurants and travel arrangements and providing recommendations for places to visit. Screenshots shared by Marcus show M helping out when a user is looking for a good gift for a friend who is having a baby. They already have clothes and toys so M acts on this information to suggest a pair of shoes, displaying a price and link to buy them.
Screenshot of Facebook M  the digital assistant for Messenger powered by humans
Screenshot of Facebook M, the digital assistant for Messenger powered by humans
Marcus writes: "Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more."
This extra functionality comes courtesy of another unique trait of M. The AI is overseen by real people with backgrounds in customer service. Their job is to train and supervise the digital assistant while also making "trickier judgement calls" that software currently can't achieve on its own.
Screenshot of Facebook M  the digital assistant for Messenger powered by humans
Screenshot of Facebook M, the digital assistant for Messenger powered by humans
In an interview with Wired, Facebook gave an example of asking M to plan a birthday dinner for a friend. The AI can easily book a taxi with Uber and then reserve a place with the restaurant but it can't add a truly unique touch to make the occasion really special. That's where the humans step in, capable of offering a surprise by sending some cupcakes along from a favourite bakery. This merging with people lets M do things that "none of the others can".
M is part of Facebook's new strategy of making Messenger its own platform, decoupling it from the core social network and letting it thrive on its own. Marcus says it's "early in the journey" to scaling M and "enabling people on Messenger to get things done across a variety of things, so they can get more time to focus on what's important in their lives."
Facebook hopes that it can become the default place to visit for mobile search by building M into an incredibly powerful task-focused assistant, powered by real people with experience in assistance. Messenger will become such a quick and easy platform for achieving things on that it will become the natural first destination for people to visit when they need a little help to do what they want.
M will eventually be available to all current users of Facebook Messenger. The service now has over 700 million users, a figure that has more than tripled since Marcus arrived from PayPal in June 2014.
More about Facebook, Messenger, digital assistant, Assistant, siri
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