Facebook’ ‘M’ virtual assistant is part computer, part human


Facebook has started public testing of M, its new virtual assistant. The service will take on Apple’s Siri, Google’s Now and Microsoft’s Cortana, but with one key difference: it is powered by actual people, not just artificial intelligence.

According to Facebook, M will be able to do much more than rival services. “M can actually complete tasks on your behalf,” explained David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products.

Much-like TaskRabbit, Facebook’s M relies on human customer service contractors, called M Trainers, to answer some questions and complete tasks such as restaurant bookings. As Marcus puts it, “It’s powered by artificial intelligence that’s trained and supervised by people.”

The hybrid AI/human butler is free to use as part of Facebook’s messenger app for iOS and Android although for the time being it will remain a small-scale trial in San Francisco. WIRED.com reports that just a “few hundred” Bay Area Facebook users currently have access.

“It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more,” said Marcus. And when Marcus says “it”, he means a human.

Questions people can ask M include “Can you help me order flowers for my mum’s birthday?”, “Where’s the best place to go hiking in the Bay Area?” and “Is there a dog-friendly beach nearby?”. Simpler requests will be handled by M’s artificial intelligence while more complex tasks will require a human to step in.

Users will never know if they’re being helped by a human or a computer, with M always answering in the same efficient, scripted, courteous text. The service will expand slowly over time, according to Marcus and is still an “early” build.