David Marcus, Facebook
Facebook wants to be a lot more than a place for you to share articles and pictures with your friends.
On Wednesday, the social networking juggernaut started publicly testing its own digital assistant. It lives within Facebook Messenger, the hugely popular messaging app. Its name is "M," and it will let you make restaurant reservations, buy stuff as if you were using Amazon, and even help you book vacations.
For now, Facebook M is only available to a very small group of people using the Messenger app in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Facebook's ambition is to have M eventually work for all of Messenger's 700 million users in the future.
Even though it was just announced, I can already tell that it looks much better than the digital assistants Apple, Google, and Microsoft offer on their phones.
While virtual assistants like Apple's Siri and Google Now use computer algorithms to answer questions and give you recommendations, Facebook M is "powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people," David Marcus, the former PayPal president who now oversees Messenger, wrote on Facebook.
That means a group of people at Facebook look through and make sure requests on M get answered. So if I were to ask M to call my cable company, as Wired's Jessi Hempel wrote is a task you could ask of the assistant, (I would just tap a small button in the Messenger app), a human would make the call for me and follow up with a message to me.
If M were available where I live, the next time I want to go out for dinner with friends I could use it not onlly to make the restaurant reservation, but also handle transportation (like an Uber ride) from within Messenger, app I already love and use daily. That's Facebook's goal, but how well it will actually handle complex tasks like acting as a concierge remains to be seen.
Siri and Google Now, for comparison, don't function like human assistants or travel agents at M's level. Sure, Google Now can see that I have an upcoming flight booked by scanning my email, but I can't ask it to actually find the best flight and book it for me.
It's important to keep in mind that Siri isn't necessarily the same thing as M. Apple integrates Siri with your iPhone's contacts, calendar, and other apps, while M is only in Facebook's ecosystem and the Messenger app. The value proposition is a little different, but Siri should also be able to do what M offers, like make restaurant reservations and help me buy things.
I'm skeptical of how well something like M will scale when there's real people helping power it and taking requests, but the feature has real potential to make my life — and millions of other peoples' lives — easier.