AI is the talk of the town these days. Every major tech juggernaut is trying to grasp machine intelligence and Facebook seems to be on a very promising track with an all-new personal assistant called ‘M.’ Unlike Google Now, Cortana, or Siri, Facebook M doesn’t ask you to repeat what you said, nor does it dump a bunch of Internet links on you when the query is too difficult for the algorithms to handle. When it hits a search roadblock, it starts to ask around.
M relies not just on search algorithms but also human beings to fetch its answers. Users will tap a small button at the bottom of the Messenger app and type in their query as a note to be sent to the virtual assistant. With the help of actual human assistants contracted by Facebook, M is able to use both technology and common sense to produce results for commands like: “find me a 4-star hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area and book a room with a view for me while you’re at it.”
M is text-based (at least for the time being), so it loses some points to rivals Siri and Cortana in the usability department. On the other hand, text is a more accurate form of input than speech is. But if the service turns out half as useful as Facebook hopes, it will shake up the entire tech industry, and not only.
Business as usual
The Social Network makes no secret of its plans to monetize the platform. M will remember previous conversations and will know every user’s individual preferences. It will recommend products and services that the user is likely to buy and use, respectively.
Following the testing phase, it will not immediately pull data from users’ social networking profiles because certain privacy factors are at stake, according to David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook. But the company will look into it in the future. After all, the tracks we leave behind on social networks are a treasure trove of purchase intent indicators.
Wired has learned from the VP that users won’t necessarily know who answered their question: the computer or a real assistant. Also, unlike Cortana and Siri, M is neither male nor female – it’s genderless.
How it actually works
A couple of examples of how M has been used in internal testing:
“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.”
Even snazzier was the ‘cable company’ example:
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.
The way M operates may sound confusing or even far fetched, but the mechanism is actually based on a very simple formula. The machine side of M uses a pool of stored data to try and answer the queries, following up with questions of its own to zero in on the customer’s demands. During this conversation pendulum, wherever M hits a wall, it taps an assistant for help – a real, human assistant.
The beauty of it is that M is a long-term project based on machine learning. What the human assistants do today, M will know to do on its own in a few years. Any new situation will first be handled by the human component. After enough similar scenarios are processed, M will go through the motions unassisted. This sets the premise for the first true artificial intelligence model that will put humanity’s entire pool of knowledge at M’s fingerprints, ready to serve (or attack, if you ask some Sci-Fi writers).
Watch your back, Google!
Right now, all M is missing is a voice and a bit of exercise. But the wheels are in motion, and at least Google should be trembling with fear. The search service, now its own boss as part of the Alphabet conglomerate, is seeing its ad revenue dwindle at the hand of Facebook’s much more efficient social networking platform. Facebook is also commanding the video market where it counts – on mobiles.
Revenue-wise Google is still king, but Facebook’s recent growth rate is enough to send shivers down Sundar Pichai’s spine as he is just getting comfortable in the CEO chair. With M in his back pocket, Mark Zuckerberg must be jubilant right now.