Facebook has begun to test its new virtual personal assistant, M, in a small beta beyond its own walls. And the early reports have been ecstatic.
Tales have emerged of tickets booked and food ordered. M, we are told, is already amazing at minimising the pain of certain small tasks.
But when we hear about M it’s important to remember both what it is and also what it’s not. M is a virtual assistant, but it’s not pure artificial intelligence, like Siri. Facebook has cleverly positioned M as part AI, part human. This invites you to let your imagination run wild about the amount of the work being done by robots.
But we do know a bit about it.
Facebook confirmed to The Verge that humans monitor “every” M communication “from start to finish” — this means no portion of the process is 100% automated. Those who monitor M are called “trainers,” and are essentially a team of customer service agents who assist the computer with your every query.
Sometimes, presumably, the trainers are tasked with simply doing what you ask. BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz asked M to draw him a picture of Barry Zito and a hand-drawn one magically appeared. Undoubtedly, a trainer simply drew him that picture.
Now, this type of convenience is remarkable — in the way having a regular personal assistant is remarkable. Things just happen when you ask them to do things. And I’m sure it provides a similar sense of ease to the one I feel when I interact with Amazon’s customer service. Being able to chat with a helpful entity at a moment’s notice is nothing to scoff at.
But that’s not the promise of M.
The promise of M is this revolutionary and mysterious hybrid of man and machine. And when you hear that, you want to believe it’s mostly AI, that Facebook is cracking some code. But Facebook told The Verge that M’s AI is “based on two old-school algorithms that form the statistical and probabilistic backbone of many automation services today.”
What seems to be special about Facebook’s version is that there is a team of people working to draw you a picture or place an order on your behalf when you ask.
This presents a problem of scale. How can this move beyond a small beta? And what would that mean?
The Verge’s Nick Statt makes an astute point that the implications of M end up feeling slightly dystopian, once the initial euphoria has worn off. Facebook has put the emphasis on M being useful. It doesn’t need to stand on it its own two feet from an AI perspective. It just needs to do what you ask.
Right now this means substantial human intervention. And is it still as fun if, behind the curtain, there’s a call center of people paid to deal with your every request?