Facebook M: Meet the Social Network’s Answer to Siri and Google Now

M, Facebook’s digital assistant, is built into the Facebook Messenger app.
Facebook Inc.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network and it’s the world’s most popular destination to share photos. But it isn’t where most of us go to search the Web, book a restaurant reservation or buy something online. In an attempt to change this, Facebook has built M, a virtual assistant that will live in the company’s Messenger iOS and Android apps, and compete directly with Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa.

Like its rivals, M can tell you what the weather will be like today, what last night’s baseball score was and how high Mount Kilimanjaro is. M can also be used to schedule appointments and send you reminders, something Siri, Google Now and Cortana can do, too.

But M, named for “Messenger,” differs from its rivals in a few other ways. “Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf,” said David Marcus, the ex-PayPal CEO who’s now in charge of Facebook messaging apps, in a Facebook post. “It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more.” Such customer service tasks aren’t something Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon’s assistants offer.

M can do this because it doesn’t rely solely on artificial intelligence to answer questions, Marcus said in his post introducing the digital assistant. When M is stumped, it turns to actual, old-school customer service representatives, called M Trainers, to answer questions. (Facebook didn’t mention the size of the M Trainer team, which consist mainly of contractors, not employees.)

M isn’t built into an OS, like Siri and iOS, Google Now and Android, or Cortana and Windows 10. Instead, it lives in Facebook’s messaging app. You also don’t talk to M, you just text questions and commands to it, or send a recorded audio clip. And M always responds via text, not voice.

M also doesn’t offer predictive search results like its rivals. Google Now and Cortana present users with information they frequently search for before any question is asked; in iOS 9, Siri will do some similar things.

Facebook declined to give the Journal access to M, which it says rolled out to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday. Facebook also declined to make Marcus or anyone else on the Messenger team available for an interview, but the executive told Wired that M would eventually earn revenue through purchases made by users.

In his Facebook post, Marcus noted that M is in its infancy. It will be rolling out slowly to more users over the next few months, and Facebook intends to eventually make M available to all of Messenger’s 700 million users.

M is also an attempt by Facebook to catch up with the massive amounts of usage data currently being collected by Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. Powering a personal assistant through software requires massive amounts of data. Google has years of search queries to understand questions people ask. Siri and Cortana are integrated with the search engine Bing, and each taps into maps and other applications that gather still more data to optimize artificial intelligence.

Facebook doesn’t have a similar trove of information because people generally don’t type search queries into Facebook. If M takes off, it could finally succeed in getting users to turn to Facebook for Internet search—something Facebook has so far failed at repeatedly, in previous efforts involving its Graph Search, Social Graph apps and Timeline products.

Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.


Follow WSJ.D on Twitter, and get our Personal Technology columns delivered right to your inbox. And like us on Facebook to get our news right in your feed:

Facebook M: Meet the Social Network’s Answer to Siri and Google Now

Via: Google Alerts for AI