Facebook Wants To Be Your Personal Assistant

Facebook isn't content simply being a repository for all your photos, messages, and status updates. Apparently, the company also wants to start assisting you in your daily life. This week, Facebook began rolling out M, a personal digital assistant you can access within the Facebook Messenger app.

According to Facebook's vice president of messaging products, David Marcus, M is a different kind of AI assistant than existing options such as Google Now, Apple's Siri, or Microsoft's Cortana. First, M isn't just backed by computer smarts; it's also powered by actual people. And second, it doesn’t just help you get things done — it completes tasks for you. M can can purchase items and get them delivered to friends and family, make travel arrangements, and book appointments or reservations at restaurants. Facebook wants M to be your go-to source for mobile discovery, replacing your need to hit up multiple apps like Google Maps, Yelp, Uber, and OpenTable to get a task done.

Here’s how M works: You tap a button at the bottom of the Messenger app to send M a message, just like you would a friend. You make a request of M using natural language, like “Where’s a good place to get pizza in San Francisco?” or “I need a gift for my best friend’s birthday. What should I buy?” and then you continue a conversation with M until the task is completed. M learns about your preferences from your conversations — it doesn’t pull data from the rest of your Facebook existence — and makes suggestions based on what it learns. According to WIRED, one of the most useful applications of M thus far with its beta testers is calling your bank or internet service provider and enduring the droning hold music and automated messages for you.

So M is quite different from other digital assistants. Unlike Siri and Cortana, which are both "female" here in the U.S., M has no gender (and you also can’t tell whether it’s a human or an algorithm answering your queries). And second, with real people (dubbed "M trainers") working behind the scenes, M is half virtual assistant and half Taskrabbit or Amazon Mechanical Turk. (For now, at least, Facebook is footing the bill for the human part of the equation.) Third, M is focused more on helping you accomplish actual tasks, rather than helping you plan your schedule or search the web for information.

Facebook began rolling out M to a couple hundred Facebook Messenger users earlier this week and will slowly expand to more over the coming months.

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