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The Evolution of Digital Assistants

What will Facebook's new offering bring to the table?

21Sep

Facebook’s new digital assistant ‘M’ is its answer to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

The service opened to around a hundred Facebook users in San Francisco, and according to David Marcus, Facebook’s VP of Messaging Products, it promises ‘to perform tasks than none of the others can’.

The arrival of M comes after each of its ‘big 5’ rivals - Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon - already introduced virtual assistants. Amazon’s ‘Echo’, for instance, has been touted as a real step forward for the internet of things, with Fortune magazine stating that the product has meant that they’ve already won the battle for ‘the home’.

Apple’s venerable ‘Siri’ app has long been recognized as the industry’s leading virtual assistant. It is also the longest standing version, having been implemented in conjunction with the iPhone 4S’s release in 2011. While it hasn’t always hit the news for the right reasons - it’s been accused of homophobia for example - when used for the reasons it was designed for, it’s an efficient tool for scheduling meetings, looking up directions and speed dialling.

Yet what has let Siri down is that it’s powered by, and completely reliant on technology. The same can be said for Cortana and Google Now, and without having that human touch, these systems remain fairly limited in their scope. M will be powered by a team of Facebook’s employees and artificial intelligence, making its responses more varied and personalized. Smaller companies - like TaskRabbit and Operator - already employ people to respond to messages, but clearly on a much smaller scale than Facebook would need.

As mentioned in an article on Wired, Facebook’s at a disadvantage when it comes to mobile discovery because, unlike Google, it doesn’t have its own operating system. This means that it has to be downloaded, while Google’s apps, like Maps, are already there and ready to be used. In line with this, Jessi Hempel states: ‘Right now, if I’m looking to treat my summer cold, and I’m in front of my laptop, I begin by googling “cold meds Upper West Side.” On mobile, however, I may pull up any number of apps–Google, Google Maps, Twitter–to find that out, or I may just ask Siri.’

To counteract this, Facebook wants M to be so powerful that it will make up for this, and having people working directly on responses is necessary to create a system that’s powerful enough. At the moment, M doesn’t actually draw from your social data, something which came as a slight shock considering the pool of data that Facebook has at its disposal. This will surely change as M begins to be used by more people, and the strain on its team becomes more pronounced.

M marks the next step in the evolution of virtual assistants. For a company the size of Facebook to undertake such a task is a bold move, but one which they ultimately hope will allow them to dominate mobile. Apple and Microsoft will surely respond quickly, and that should spark even more creativity in the field.

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