Facebook’s Messenger app is about to get a lot more useful: Facebook started to roll out a new mobile assistant dubbed “M” to select Messenger users in the Bay Area Wednesday, according to a Wired report.
M can be seen as Facebook’s attempt to take on Siri and Google Now, with a twist: The mobile assistant is in part powered by humans, which help users to get tasks done that are too complicated for machines. For example, M will be able to find nearby restaurants and reserve tables or order take-out, suggest last-minute birthday gifts and help organize social outings.
All this will be done via messaging; users just type their requests as if they were talking to a regular person. On the other end of the line, a computer helps to make sense of these requests and field basic questions. More advanced interactions are handed over to what Facebook calls “trainers” — essentially customer support representatives that can make phone calls for Facebook users, or do other things a computer would be unable to do.
The Information was first to report about Facebook’s plans to tap humans for mobile assistance last month.
This combination of artificial and human intelligence is very different from what Google and Apple are doing with their mobile assistants, which are entirely powered by software. Using humans to power mobile assistance could also become a costly undertaking. Wired reports that Facebook eventually plans to hire thousands of trainers as it makes M more widely available.
But Facebook obviously views this as a worthwhile investment as it aims to turn Messenger from a simple communications tool to a must-have app on mobile. Messenger already has more than 700 million monthly active users, according to Facebook, and the company is continuing to add functionality to the app while removing friction.
In July, Facebook introduced the option to sign up for Messenger without a Facebook account in certain countries. And in March, it opened up the app to third-party publishers to add professionally produced and user-generated content directly to conversations.