Facebook is taking on Google Now, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana with a virtual assistant of its own called M. The assistant is a new feature for Messenger and is powered by both artificial intelligence and real human so-called "M Trainers."
Messenger M is rolling out to select users in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday, but eventually, Facebook is hoping the feature will become available for all of its nearly 1.5 billion users. By simply messaging M and using natural language, users can ask the virtual assistant for help with a variety of tasks such as helping them organize a birthday party, find the right gift for a friend or book a vacation. And because the service is powered by both software and humans, users can ask M to to call their cable companies, wait on the phone and deal with customer service once somebody finally picks up.
M is the brainchild of David Marcus, who was previously CEO of PayPal before being hired away by Facebook in 2014 to lead the company's messaging products. Marcus' hope for M is that it will be so good at helping users get tasks done that Messenger will become the first destination on their smartphone, ahead of competitors like Google. "Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf," Marcus said in a Facebook post Wednesday. "It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more."
M's reliance on both human and artificial intelligence is what Facebook hopes will differentiate it from Google Now, Siri and Cortana, all of which try to help you get tasks done on your smartphone using nothing but software. Those tools can easily help you send a text message to someone, create a reminder or identify whatever song is playing near you, but they can't get tasks done in the real world as Facebook claims M can.
“An engineer went to Paris for a couple days, and his friend asked M to redecorate his desk in a French style,” Marcus told Wired as an example of M's capabilities. “Twenty-four hours later, the desk was decorated with a proper napkin, baguette bread, and a beret.”
Powering M's human intelligence is a team of contractors with customer service backgrounds that have been brought on by Facebook. Marcus told Wired he expects Facebook to eventually hire thousands of these workers as M expands to other cities and eventually other countries. At the same time, Marcus hopes the service will become more intelligent and be able to get more tasks done on its own.
"This is early in the journey to build M into an at-scale service," Marcus said on Facebook. "But it's an exciting step towards 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."