Tech Transformers

Facebook launches Siri rival…with real humans

Facebook tests new virtual assistant
Facebook tests new virtual assistant

Facebook has launched its own personal digital assistant within its Messenger app in a bid to challenge Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana.

But Facebook's proposition, called "M," comes with a difference. Instead of being purely based on artificial intelligence (AI), it also uses real people – almost like customer service representatives – to complete tasks and answer queries.

"It's powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people," David Marcus, vice-president of messaging products at Facebook, wrote in a post on the social networking site.

"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."


Facebook has employed a team of so-called "M Trainers" – real humans – to answer questions that users are asking M.

The system works by a user typing a question to M. The request, be it to book a restaurant or recommend a gift for a friend, will be carried out by M. But a user won't know whether the AI side of M has carried out the task, or one of the human helpers.

This could potentially make it more useful in completing tasks than any of its rivals, which rely on information such as the searches you are doing via your web browser to provide relevant information.

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M doesn't use data from users' social Facebook data to complete tasks, but Marcus told Wired magazine that that might change "at some point, with proper user consent."

As well as putting out something to rival its fellow tech giants, Facebook is now looking to disrupt the dominance that Google has in search by making its Messenger app the go-to place to find information.

When a user wants to find information, they Google it or use Microsoft's Bing search engine, for example. But with M, Facebook is able to offer its own platform that can serve up answers and carry out tasks.

M is currently in a trial phase in the U.S. and Marcus notes that it Facebook is in an "early journey" to build the digital personal assistant into an "at-scale service." If Facebook Messenger's 700 million users take this up, then it could also become a key revenue stream.