In the last few hours a few hundred Facebook users in San Francisco have opened their messenger apps to discover a mysterious new virtual assistant: M. With the new test launch Facebook is yet again taking on the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon - and it looks like it could accomplish a whole lot more.
What is Facebook M?
Like Siri, Facebook M allows you to carry out tasks and find out information. This could include planning a birthday gift, seeing if there's a dog friendly beach nearby, or getting suggestions for holidays.
What makes M particularly unusual is the fence it sits on. On first look it appears to be artificial intelligence, but in reality its a balanced mix between AI and human "M trainers". These trainers, for the moment at least, will be helping with the more tricky enquiries and tasks. As Wired said: "If you ask M to plan a birthday dinner for your friend, the software might book the Uber and the restaurant, but a person might surprise your friend at the end of the night by sending over birthday cupcakes from her favourite bakery." One of the most popular requests so far has been getting the service to endure the endless customer service hold times on your behalf.
Over time "M learns from human behaviours" - in the future the human element might be removed. The plan for the moment though is to grow the team into the thousands. That's quite a substantial investment, so how is the company justifying that?
How does it make money for Facebook?
The business potential for Facebook here is huge. The most obvious one is commission based, taking a fee for any purchases made as a result of M. But there are also a whole host of partnerships available. As Facebook's David Marcus said:
“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.”
Of course, Facebook will also learn a huge amount from the interactions that happen with M, and that data will likely feed back into its main platform - helping drive the advertising platform further.
How does it compare?
Google Now doesn't take the same line with data - and being a search engine the company knows an incredible amount about you and your surroundings. Now isn't perfect, but it is able to predict and answer some questions before you need to ask them. For example, you can be on a beach thinking of surfing and Google might buzz you to alert you of a Jellyfish warning in the area. That said, it's ability to understand casual language and conversation is far less advanced.
Needless to say Facebook knows more about you than maybe any other social network out there, and a vast amount of information about the world as well - through business pages etc. That, in addition to M's human element, makes for a formidable proposition.
When will I get it?
Probably not for a while. There's a lot for M to learn before it can look to expand - these include not just query types, but cultural differences. Across the world the types of questions and priorities of its audience will shift dramatically and it's essential that M, and the trainers, are up to it.
For businesses to prepare it'll be important to ensure that the service is aware and favourable towards them. If you're a local business it's worth ensuring you have a competent Facebook page with all the necessary contact details. Where possible, show you have a loyal and happy customer base. It seems likely that Facebook will use this information for M's purposes.
Either way though, this is an exciting new addition to the AI personal assistant war, and one that Facebook has no intention of losing.