Facebook has officially unveiled its answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. Named M, the virtual assistant resides in the Facebook Messenger app. A few hundred users in the San Francisco Bay Area are now testing out the technology. The service is free and will one day supposedly make its way to all Facebook Messenger users.
Wired has all the details about the service, but it’s decidedly different from the Siri that Apple users have gotten to know since being first introduced in 2011.
Most importantly, M is a combination of artificial intelligence with significant help from real people. Facebook employees, called M trainers, are tasked with making sure that every request is actually answered. The employees will step in when the AI technology can’t get the job done.
The site has more about how it will work:
To try the new service, users will tap a small button at the bottom of the Messenger app to send a note to M, the same way they might message anyone on Facebook. M’s software will decode the natural language, ask followup questions in the message thread, and send updates as the task is completed. Users won’t necessarily know whether a computer or a person has helped them; unlike Siri and Cortana, M has no gender.
Currently, M doesn’t use any social networking data that Facebook collects from users. That means the service will only use previous answers to help complete a task. But Facebook says that could change, at some point, with proper consent from users:
At least during internal testing, M seems more than capable of getting the job done:
In internal tests, Facebook employees have been using M for several weeks to do everything from organizing dinner parties to tracking down an unusual beverage in New Orleans. “An engineer went to Paris for a couple days, and his friend asked M to redecorate his desk in a French style,” Marcus says. “Twenty-four hours later, the desk was decorated with a proper napkin, baguette bread, and a beret.” One of M’s most popular requests from its Facebook employee testers: the service can call your cable company and endure the endless hold times and automated messages to help you set up home wifi or cancel your HBO.
While the service sounds really interesting, I do wonder when or if M will really ever see a wider rollout. More than 47 million people in the United States alone use Messenger. And worldwide, that number skyrockets to 800 million. How many Facebook employees would be needed to make sure every request is answered? The service wouldn’t exactly be helpful if you received an answer days, or weeks, later.
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