In February, a startup introduced Magic, a service that promised that you could order up virtually anything via text message, than have it delivered to your door. It launched, went viral, then…faded. Now Facebook wants to do Magic one better.
As of today, Facebook is launching a trial of M, a service that lives on top of its Messenger application in iOS and Android. Dial M for Messenger, as it were, and a hybrid team of algorithms and real-life assistants promises to help you with your mundane tasks. To try the new service, users can tap a small button at the bottom of the Messenger app to send a note to M. (If you use Messenger, you may already be signed up for the trial.)
“Today we’re launching M, a personal digital assistant inside of Messenger that completes tasks and finds information on your behalf, a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement. “It’s powered by artificial intelligence that’s trained and supervised by people. M will be available to a very, very small number of people in the Bay Area to start. We’re looking forward to seeing how they use and enjoy it.”
It’s not clear exactly what M’s limitations are. According to the decidedly neutral Wired story that helped launch M, the assistant is designed to help answer questions like “Where is the best place to go hiking in the Bay Area?” and “Can you help me order flowers for my Mom’s birthday?”—both informative questions as well as tasks that can be accomplished. M’s real-life assistants will also apparently remain on hold to talk to the cable company on your behalf—wasting their lives, not yours.
“It can perform tasks that none of the others can,” David Marcus, vice president of messaging products for Facebook, told Wired.
Why this matters: If Facebook can turn M into the go-to destination for the sorts of myriad tasks that we hate to do ourselves, it could have a real winner here. But the seemingly impossible challenge is the scope of it all—Facebook expects to handle requests from the 700 million Facebook Messenger users? Even if we’re talking a staggered rollout here over a period of years, the scale of what Facebook seems to want to accomplish appears insurmountable.
How M would differ from Siri and others
Numerous virtual digital assistants go to work each day as part of the Apple iOS, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows platforms. Still, Siri, Google Now, and Cortana largely answer fact-based questions and perform simple tasks confined to a computing device. Facebook’s M would go a step further, making intelligent decisions on your behalf.
As of now, however, Facebook is not tapping into its social graph to help answer those questions—so presumably you’ll have to tell M what type of flowers your mother likes, rather than asking M to comb through her timeline and discover that fact for itself. It’s also not clear whether M will actually make a purchase for you, or simply point you to a service or website for you to take care of yourself.
Eventually, everyone that uses Messenger—yes, all 700 million users—will get to use M, Facebook promises. That seems virtually impossible to do with a team of live employees. So that will put the onus on Facebook’s algorithms to figure out what you want and then do it for you, all with you paying for the privilege. It’s not clear that Magic, a small startup, was able to make this work. Can one of the largest companies on the planet, Facebook, be successful?
Updated at 12:27 PM with additional information and a statement from Facebook.