Facebook Announces Its Digital Assistant

“M” Mixes Artificial Intelligence with a Human Touch

Facebook_M_lWe’ve written several blogs in the past year about the growing importance of intelligent personal assistants (see Daily Insight: Amazon Opens Its Voice Platform and Daily Insight: Cortana, Microsoft’s Halo Effect).

As we move into an era after windows, icons, menus and pointers, these digital assistants are becoming a vital part of modern user interfaces (UIs). As devices get more powerful, connectivity more robust and commands more complex, natural UIs provide users with a way to cut to the chase through natural language and body movements.

Yesterday, Facebook announced a personal assistant that allows users to type or dictate queries and receive answers, advice and action from the other side. The assistant, simply called M, will be embedded into the Facebook Messenger app, and will sit alongside other contacts to provide responses at any time. Facebook’s strategy with Messenger mimics Tencent’s moves with WeChat, which the Chinese company has turned into a rich platform addressing a series of business-to-consumer uses such as tracking parcel deliveries.

Facebook says that M uses a combination of artificial intelligence and real people to complete requests. Unlike other digital assistants, M can act as an agent and complete tasks like finding and booking flights and making restaurant reservations. It’s not clear what percentage of queries will require human interaction, but employees could initially have to handle the more complicated tasks and so Facebook will need to hire a significant number of people to offer such a service to a large audience.

The wide global use of the Messenger app indicates this could be a major initiative for Facebook, provided the company decides on a wide global roll-out. There are currently 700 million Facebook Messenger users around the world, speaking many languages and dialects.

M will ultimately be an interesting test of user confidence and trust in such services. Knowledge that a person rather than just software could be involved in particular queries will raise privacy and security concerns, and many are likely to hesitate in using the service altogether.

Facebook’s M joins Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and other personal assistants. Facebook’s agent solution could be a source of revenue for the company, creating a livelier shopping atmosphere within Facebook and Messenger and collecting more payment information, personal tastes and spending patterns.

However, Facebook’s M faces the challenge of being a utility app rather than an integral part of the device operating system. Cortana, Google Now and Siri are so tightly integrated and associated with their interfaces that they will become the most natural solutions for users to turn to. This surrounding competition means it’s unclear if M can grow beyond the Messenger app to address more mundane tasks like reminding users to pick up milk.

It appears that M isn’t simply a fringe project for Facebook, but a fundamental evolution in user interactions and service expansion. The company has been working hard on search, and M is undoubtedly a further way to increase competition for Google.

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