Facebook's 'Moneypenny' is a real live Siri. Can it compete?

Facebook is reportedly developing a personal assistant similar to Siri and her peers, but with a twist: there's a real person behind the voice. 

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/Files
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during his keynote address at Facebook F8 in San Francisco, California on March 25, 2015.

Move over, Siri: a new era of personal assistants has arrived.

Since its 2011 iOS debut, Apple’s voice-activated digital assistant has inspired a wave of competitors, including Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. Last month, Soundhound Inc. introduced Hound, yet another personal assistant app that has generated buzz for its speed and ability to process complex questions. 

Now, Facebook is reportedly getting in on the action, but with a twist: instead of speaking to a robotic personal assistant, users will be connected to a real person who can help with “researching and ordering products and services, among other tasks.” 

Referred to internally as “Moneypenny” – yes, like the secretary from "James Bond" – this new development is said to be part of an ongoing effort by Facebook to expand its Messenger service. Other recent moves include adding video calling and a payment service to the app, as well as launching a version of Messenger for web browsers. 

The concept of connecting people with a real person to assist them isn’t new, of course; telephone operators have been doing it for years. But it seems to be making a comeback as tech companies explore new ways to add a more human touch to the on-demand service that we’ve come to expect from digital assistants like Siri.

One startup, Magic, lets users text a number to connect with a “trained operator” who can then place orders for them. (For example: “Send my girlfriend 12 roses by tomorrow.”) Another service, TaskRabbit, allows people to outsource household errands and other minor tasks, such as cleaning the oven or buying groceries, to a designated “Tasker” who lives nearby. 

While Magic and similar services have been criticized by some for being slow and understaffed, their growing popularity suggests that there are just some things a robot can’t do. 

“You can see the attraction of a service like Moneypenny over its digital rivals. You can’t ask Siri to carry out some detailed research on which 4K TV is best to buy in your price range,” writes Jay McGregor of Forbes. “For the time being, that kind of research requires a human brain, a keyboard, and a long attention span.” 

Moneypenny is currently being tested internally and it isn’t clear when exactly it could be available to the public, The Information reports. 

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