Meet M, Facebook’s new personal assistant

Select users are testing M, Facebook Messenger's digital assistant service that uses both human and artificial intelligence.

Courtesy of David Marcus/Facebook
A screenshot of the logo for Facebook's 'M' personal digital assistant.

Facebook has finally pulled the curtains back on M, a new service on its Messenger app that acts more like a private concierge than most other digital assistants on the market.

A few hundred users in San Francisco are currently testing the feature, which some compare to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Google Now. But what sets M apart is the level of utility, provided by a combination of both artificial intelligence and human employees.

“Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments, and way more,” said David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products.

Employees at the company have been testing M for several weeks now. According to WIRED, one of the most popular requests so far has been a task that often frustrates consumers – dealing with cable companies on the phone.

These requests could prompt partnership (read: marketing) opportunities for Facebook's Messenger app, Mr. Marcus told WIRED. “If, for instance, you have a lot of calls that have to be placed by people to cable companies, that’s a pretty good signal that their customers would actually like a better way to interact with the company and maybe they should have a presence inside of Messenger directly.”

M presents a decided improvement over Facebook’s Businesses on Messenger program, announced earlier this year as a bridge between businesses and users, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

“I actually don't know anyone who likes calling businesses,” said founder Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 developer conference in March. “It's just not fast or convenient and it definitely doesn't feel like the future.”

In recent months, the company has launched several other features to bolster Messenger’s marketability as a standalone app, including options to send money and make video calls, and even the removal of a requirement that new users have a Facebook account.

Mr. Zuckerberg has emphasized that Facebook’s strategy for the next three to five years will concentrate not on any one app, but rather on creating various services “for all the different ways that people want to communicate,” reported CNET in June.

So far, it seems to have worked. In less than two years, Facebook has more than tripled Messenger’s users to 700 million, reports WIRED.

But by relying on human employees, M's costs are significantly higher than Siri's or Cortana's, and those costs could skyrocket as the service acquires more users. These contractors, known as “M trainers,” aren’t supposed to behave any differently than, say, a computer would.

At the moment, M doesn’t use Facebook’s social data to complete personalized requests, drawing instead from conversations users have with the assistant. But Marcus told WIRED this may change “at some point, with proper user consent.”

Some critics add that M is at an inherent disadvantage, as users will have to take the extra step of launching the app versus simply being able to speak into their phones.

Others argued the opposite. TechCrunch called the integration “smart,” noting that “people are used to tapping out messages to people, rather than speak commands like its competitors sometimes require.”

Marcus is staying quiet about M's rollout timeline, but it will eventually be available – and free – for all Facebook Messenger users.

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