Facebook is testing its new personal assistant in the San Francisco Bay area. The personal assistant, which Facebook is calling "M", can be found inside its Messenger app.

Facebook, it appears, hopes to take on Apple and Microsoft, both of which have rolled out high-profile offerings in this space, Siri and Cortana, respectively.

Google has also joined the crowd with Now. 

Facebook, though, is taking a different approach from these offerings, which are entirely tech-based: it has added a human element to the artificial intelligence that underlies the platform.How, exactly, it is doing this is unclear, at least based on the little information Facebook has released via a post by the head of Facebook Messenger, David Marcus. He writes:

"M is a personal digital assistant inside of Messenger that completes tasks and finds information on your behalf. It's powered by artificial intelligence that's trained and supervised by people. 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."

How It Works

The screenshots accompanying Marcus' post give an idea of how the service will work. It is text-based, obviously, as it resides inside Messenger.

Open Messenger and M is there, waiting for a request, which -- at least based on how things work in the Cortana-Siri-Now world -- can get surprisingly personal and hands on. Examples include:

  • Can you help me order flowers for my mom's birthday?
  • Where is the best place to go hiking in the Bay Area?

And my personal favorite:

  • Is there a dog-friendly beach nearby?

The latter is always good to know.

The people overseeing the answers to these requests come from Wit.ai, which Facebook acquired in January. The company's work on algorithms is also advanced and no doubt is being deployed to maximize effect in M. To give one example, earlier this year it introduced composite entities -- custom entities that have entities within them. 

Users "could tag '2007 red Mustang' as a car and tag 'Mustang' as the model, 'red' as the color, and '2007' as the year. Nested entities can be other custom entities or any of Wit's builtin entities, according to the Wit.ai blog post.

Learning Opportunities

How Can It Scale?

Indeed, most people analyzing Facebook’s new service cannot get past that part about scale. If Facebook were somehow able to scale out this model to the masses -- including, especially businesses -- it would likely wipe the competitive slate clean.

Imagine: an IT-based personal assistant with a human at the controls to make sure that that flower order you placed for mom did not deliver, say, a funereal wreath or overcharge your credit card. If that doesn't spell industry disruption -- or rather, multiple industry disruption -- it is hard to imagine what does. 

The more you think about it, the more intractable the problem seems, Rob Enderle of The Enderle Group told CMSWire. "I guess they could contract to call centers, but that comes with the usual problems associated with contact centers and additional expenses,” he said. “I can’t see how Facebook will be able to address this any time soon, unless is drastically changes this hybrid approach."

Marcus hinted as much in his post, at least regarding the timeline.

"This is early in the journey to build M into an at-scale service," he wrote. "But it's an exciting step towards enabling people on Messenger to get things done across a variety of things, so they can get more time to focus on what's important in their lives."

Richard Windsor, an analyst at Edison Investment Research, agreed Facebook M still needs a lot of work, greater automation and integration into the ecosystem if it's to really take on Siri, Cortana and Google Now.

"However, this is yet another sign that Facebook has grasped how important it is for its long term outlook to have a wider range of Digital Life services beyond just social networking. Facebook M joins gaming as new services that break Facebook out from just being an app and usher it into the world of the ecosystem.

"This move further distances Facebook from Twitter which is still wondering it needs to do to break free of the stagnation that now besets it. I would choose Facebook over Twitter without hesitation and am even warming up to Facebook despite its lofty valuation," he added.