Facebook is testing out a new virtual assistant feature that will be able to perform tasks on your behalf, such as delivering gifts to your loved ones and making restaurant reservations, the company announced on Wednesday.
The assistant, which is being called M, is only available in the Messenger app and is currently in its testing phase to a few hundred select people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The new service underscores the increasing competition between tech giants Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which hope to become all-encompassing services that consumers use to access information and to manage their daily routines. Apple’s virtual assistant Siri comes built-in to its iPhones while Google and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into their Google Now and Microsoft Cortana services.
David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, said in a Facebook post that M is powered by artificial intelligent that’s “trained and supervised” by people.
Although Facebook is at a slight disadvantage since it’s not baked into an operating system the way Siri is in iOS and Google Now is in Android, the company believes it can become a powerful tool for helping Facebook users buy products they want more easily.
This in turn would help Facebook make money over time too.
“We start capturing all of your intent for the things you want to do,” Marcus said to Wired. “Intent often leads to buying something, or to a transaction, and that’s an opportunity for us to [make money] over time.”
To use M, you would tap a small button within the Messenger app, as Wired describes.
You would then send M a message like you would any other friend through Facebook. You could tell M that you’re traveling next week and you’re looking for a good restaurant in the area. M would then offer a suggestion and ask if you’d like to make a reservation.
What seems to separate M from its competitors, however, is that you can type in natural language without asking questions in a formal way. The people who work on the M team at Facebook are all trained in customer service, too.
Facebook currently has a staff of a “few dozen” employees who work as M trainers, a Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider. These human trainers will fine tune Facebook’s AI technology so that over time the service will become increasingly automated and not require a huge staff of trainers.
There is no timetable yet for when M will be available beyond the initial test group and offered to the 700 million worldwide users of Facebook Messenger, the spokesperson said.
Facebook faces a great deal of competition, not just from Apple and Google, but from startups as well. Magic, for example, is an SMS service that allows you to text a request, and an operator performs any task you want for you.
The announcement comes after The Information reported in July that Facebook was working on a virtual assistant called MoneyPenny.