The New Facebook Messenger Personal Assistant Will Ensure You Never Have To Do Anything Yourself

I don't know about you, but I use Siri a lot — mostly because I'm too lazy to actually type things, but she still comes in handy. But although Siri insists that she's a loyal companion, her abilities seem to pale in comparison to the personal assistant that Facebook is rolling out for its Messenger app. The assistant, known simply as "M," made its debut on Wednesday morning when it found its way onto several hundred phones in the San Francisco Bay Area. An artificial intelligence-based service reportedly unlike any other on the market, "M can actually complete tasks on your behalf," according to a Facebook post by Facebook Messenger lead David Marcus.

M is a personal digital assistant inside of Messenger that completes tasks and finds information on your behalf. It's powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people. ... It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more.

Facebook's introduction of M enables the social media giant to enter the competition for best virtual personal assistant, joining Apple's Siri, Google's Google Now, and Microsoft's Cortana. But, as Marcus explained his post, M attempts to set itself apart from the others in part by being "powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people." This particular feature was enabled by Facebook's acquisition of Wit.ai — a start-up that works to create an API for building voice-activated interfaces — back in January. Wit.ai has helped Facebook develop speech recognition and voice control software that it otherwise would have had to design on its own, a much more difficult task than acquiring the company.

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As a result, human "trainers" and the Wit.ai team at Facebook's Menlo Park campus will in theory work with the AI-powered M to determine what needs to be done to answer your queries or accomplish the tasks you've set. Wired's Cade Metz describes it this way:

The AI can do most of the work for simpler tasks, like telling a joke. It'll query an Internet joke API — a service that supplies jokes—and a trainer will approve the joke if it's funny. For more complicated tasks, such as making a driving test appointment at the DMV, the humans will do most of the heavy lifting. They'll actually place a call to the DMV.

The decision to incorporate M directly into Messenger was a strategic one. Facebook users are typically more accustomed to typing out messages to their friends instead of speaking to their phones — unless you're like me, of course, and simply enjoy trying to get Siri to tell you that you're her best friend. Unsurprisingly, though, scaling up M will be expensive — it will either have to quickly learn to handle most requests on its own, or Facebook will have to hire hordes of people to do the heavy lifting until it can.

It will be interesting to see the implications of having a personal assistant integrated into Messenger that is so closely tied to the humans behind it. If Facebook succeeds with this pet project, so to speak, it might finally be able to convince users to turn to it for Internet searches, which will undoubtedly have significant consequences in the realm of data collection and dissemination.

In the meantime, though, we can probably continue to make jokes about how robots are about to take over the world.