Apple and Google are longtime players in the digital-assistant game. Now Facebook wants to play, too: M, a personal assistant integrated into its Messenger app, is currently in closed beta.
“It’s powered by artificial intelligence that’s trained and supervised by people,” reads the Facebook post describing the platform. “Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf.” Those tasks include delivering gifts, purchasing items, and even booking flight and restaurant reservations.
According to TechCrunch and other sources, Facebook will rely on a lot of actual human beings (called “M trainers,” said Wired) to power M’s more advanced services. At some future point, as the underlying technology improves, software could end up handling the bulk of those tasks; but for the moment, anyone making a restaurant reservation is doing so via another homo sapien.
The dependence on human beings also means that Facebook could have some problems scaling M to gargantuan size—but considering the company’s cash reserves, and its growing collection of very smart people, the chances of it solving those issues is actually good.
The idea of Facebook developing a powerful digital assistant will certainly make Apple and Google nervous, but it should also put smaller app builders in a watchful frame of mind. For years, software development (in both the consumer and enterprise spheres) has focused on automating as many processes as possible. If M makes it popular to create apps that serve as a portal to human help, it could force those smaller companies to spend lots of resources on staff and facilities to accommodate that need—and that’s an expense that many companies can’t handle, especially at scale.
The alternative, of course, is that AI becomes so sophisticated that the need for humans to conduct transactions such as buying products or making reservations is largely negated. Certainly that’s Facebook’s ultimate hope. But those sorts of AI dreams are a long way from becoming a reality—meaning that Facebook and other companies with billions in the bank will have a marked advantage if they want to make human interaction the next cool feature.