Meet ˜M’, Your New Human Powered Facebook Virtual Assistant

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Not to be left behind in the virtual assistant race, a couple of weeks ago, Facebook launched its own virtual assistant tool called M. The new feature built in its messenger application is powered partly by artificial intelligence technology and supervised by people with customer service experience. An announcement of its launch was made by the VP of Facebook Messaging Products, David Marcus.

With M, Facebook aims to help its users to complete tasks and search for information by providing them their very own virtual assistant. Unlike its closest rivals such as Google Now, Cortana by Microsoft, and Siri by Apple, M is not fully AI. There are real people called M trainers, managing the tool at the backend, replying to questions, helping with various tasks such as making travel arrangements, booking restaurants, purchasing items, fixing appointments, and more.

How does M works?

Users can access the new feature by tapping a button at the bottom of the app. Type in the question or task you want to perform and send it just like any other message. The text will be processed and replied; users can then ask follow up questions, and can send updates after the request is completed. Depending on the difficulty of the question or task the tool may take few seconds or a few minutes to respond. Even though M is partly managed by humans, unlike Cortana and Siri, it has no gender. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear who responds to user’s questions and requests – a human or computer.

At present, M offers advice based on the information shared by the users during the session or from past interactions. The virtual assistant tool doesn’t dip its hands into the user data that Facebook collects every day, but Marcus says this may change in the future with a clear policy on user consent.

Before its launch, M was tested by a small group of Facebook employees to perform various tasks, from calling a cable company to organizing a dinner party. Marcus gave a couple of examples to illustrate M’s features and functionality. By far the most popular request was to call the cable company. M patiently endured the multiple ‘wait’ messages to place a request on the user’s behalf to cancel a channel or avail a service. In the second instance, a user wanted to give a French style look to his desk, and within a day via M the user managed to get the desk decorated with beret, baguette bread, and napkin included.

Why the computer-human hybrid assistant?

Certainly, humans are better at handling complex situations and making judgment calls. A request to plan a birthday dinner for a friend may sound simple to a human, but to a computer it’s a tough one to process. It may respond to the user’s request by hiring an Uber cab and booking dinner at a restaurant. But the human behind M, gets the question and the context, and may send a birthday dinner from your friend’s favorite restaurant. In due course, the AI tech may fully take over the operations, but for now M trainers are a vital part of the tool.

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