Facebook’s ambition to convert its Messenger app into a fully independent platform has been an open secret for some time. Quite how the social giant planned to turn instant messaging into something more than a basic communication was unclear. Now, all is revealed: M is an artificially intelligent chatbot, backed by a small army of human microtaskers who can research, suggest, and purchase for you.
At present, digital assistants are quite useful. Ask Siri or Cortana to send an email or mark a date, and they will happily oblige. But given a free choice, few of us would choose the advice of a friendly program over the suggestions of a human friend. Likewise, these talking aides are unable to help with any task that ventures outside of the digital domain. For instance, the sentence “Hello Siri — could you decorate my desk so I still feel like I’m on vacation in France when I return home?” might produce amusement, but little else.
By way of contrast, one Facebook employee asked M the exact same question, and within 24 hours, he had a beret on his desk. Equally, you can get one of M’s helpers to book transportation for you, or hold the phone to your cable company while you do other things. This is only possible thanks to the human element of the new service, although the artificial intelligence is really quite…well…intelligent. After the current testing period, which is limited to San Francisco’s Bay Area, the plan is to let users link their main Facebook accounts to provide knowledge of interests and favored haunts. The software will also learn from the human “trainers”.
Ultimately, the aim of M is to replace our current urge to search for and deal with things ourselves with the convenience of delegating research and action to someone else. In so doing, we will unwittingly be generating transaction fees for Zuckerberg’s empire. Some might argue that this is just the latest example of Facebook trying to invade our lives; others will embrace the help of M and its human colleagues. The roll-out will be slow, but spectacular. If even a fraction of Messenger’s 700 million users buy into the new technology, we might be seeing a whole lot more artificial intelligence in our lives very soon.
You can read more about how M works over at Wired.