Facebook's new virtual assistant can do wonders, but it relies on 'a few dozen' human employees behind the curtain

Facebook made waves on Wednesday when it unveiled M, a new virtual assistant that can do everything from making restaurant reservations for you to sending flowers to your spouse. The service is currently in testing and only available to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But the magic that powers Facebook’s virtual assistant may surprise you.

In addition to the artificial intelligence technology that can automate much of the process, Facebook also has “a few dozen” human employees known as “M trainers” a Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider.

In the tech industry, where the ability to automate processes that were once done manually is key, Facebook’s use of humans is surprising. And given that Facebook’s Messenger communications product (the service in which M will be integrated) has 700 million users, Facebook will have to employ a lot more human M trainers as it rolls M out more broadly.

Facebook Messenger boss David Marcus told Wired that he anticipates the company will employ “thousands” of the M trainers, who are contract workers, over time.

At some point though, the idea is that M’s AI technology will become smart enough to shoulder more of the workload, eliminating the need for the human M trainers, Facebook told us. The human M trainers will “guide” and fine-tune the AI technology.

As for the AI that’s powering M, the technology is part of Facebook’s FAIR team — Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research. The team is led by Yann LeCun, an expert in the field of “deep learning” who Facebook hired from New York University in 2013. LeCunn’s team, which focuses on AI beyond just the M product, consists of roughly 50 people spread in the New York, Paris and Menlo Park, California offices, Facebook told us.

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