Facebook has revealed M, a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that works in the Messenger app and looks to take on Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana.
David Marcus, vice president of messaging products at Facebook, revealed M in a post on Facebook, explaining that, unlike other virtual assistants, M can complete tasks on people's behalf.
"M is a personal digital assistant inside Messenger that completes tasks and finds information on your behalf. It's powered by AI that's trained and supervised by people," he wrote.
"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."
Marcus explained that M is in the early stages of testing but revealed plans to scale up the service for a wider audience. M has been pushed out only to a few Messenger users in the San Francisco Bay Area so far.
The overall aim is that M will allow Messenger users to get more mundane tasks and processes in their lives completed faster so that they can concentrate on things that are more important, according to Facebook.
The company did not reveal whether M will tap into user data, but it's a safe bet to assume that Facebook will make use of its databases to help M deliver assistance and tailor an individual service for users, given the vast amount of information the social network already possesses.
Facebook did not reveal many details about how the human supervision element of M will work, but a report on Wired said that the AI will be backed up by a control centre staffed by customer service representatives who will train the system to be smarter.
This effectively puts the AI under the control of humans, who can assist M in handling more complex requests.
M runs its answer through the human support team when formulating a response to questions and requests, and the representatives will then tailor the response to best suit the user.
First appearances suggest that M is a way of automating the customer-facing side of Facebook call centres, which will free up time for the customer but still require call centre workers to parse queries and requests.
However, Facebook will record the response humans provide to M requests and use that data to train the tool to be smarter and more autonomous. It can already complete straightforward tasks such as booking meetings or ordering products for a specific location.
It would appear that Facebook is looking to create a far more advanced AI in the long term rather than a mere virtual assistant supported by internet searches and cloud computing.
This could have AI naysayers like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking worried about the long-term impacts of such developments. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has already expressed concerns that AI robots will make humans their pets.
Creating an AI is effectively part of Facebook's strategy to diversify the capabilities of its social network and messaging services. The company has already shown ambitions to turn Messenger into more of a development platform as opposed to just a communications service.
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