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Facebook's "M" Joins a Growing List of Virtual Assistants

By Danny Vena - Apr 16, 2017 at 10:00AM

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Facebook just launch its virtual assistant "M" into a crowded field and so far, it's nothing to post about.

The field of artificial intelligence has captured the public imagination recently, and the most visible example of that technology is the virtual assistant. It seems that every phone has one, and more are being introduced every day. While the potential for them to be game-changers exists, we're just not there yet, but as these digital helpers gain traction and experience, they will probably become more useful.

In simplest terms, these voice-activated assistants can help you accomplish things without having to tap your way through a variety of screens or menus. You can ask them via your smartphone to call home, get a weather report, or schedule a meeting. These capabilities are the result of advances in a field of artificial intelligence (AI) known as natural language processing, which can understand the nature of a request to process it.

Thumbs up sign outside Facebook headquarters.

Does M get a Like? Image source: Facebook.

Call me "M"

Facebook, Inc. (META -1.64%) recently announced the release of its long-awaited contribution to the field, dubbed simply "M," and its availability on Messenger for U.S. users. Some had high expectations for the virtual assistant. In an interview with website Quartz when the prototype was introduced in August 2015, Facebook VP of messaging products David Marcus said, "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, [and] book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments, and way more." 

At the time the company revealed that its assistant was a hybrid -- an AI foundation, with humans to handle the more complicated requests and provide feedback that would help the system to learn. This was expected to eventually lead to a virtual assistant that would understand your intent and provide matching results.

Big "M" or little "m"?

Fast-forward to 2017, and the results are somewhat underwhelming. The debut of M reveals an automated suggestion engine on Messenger. M will pop up in a conversation and provide limited assistance with some very mundane tasks. If M recognizes that the conversation is about payments, it provides the option of sending or requesting money. If your friend asks where you are, M will suggest sharing your location. If you are discussing going out, M will suggest getting a ride with Lyft or Uber. In your daily interactions, M will also suggest fun stickers.

Male mannequin head surrounded by binary code.

Not all virtual assistants are created equal. Image source: Pixabay.

The reason for the scaled-back assistant? M in its original state simply wasn't able to scale to millions of users because of the continued requirement to provide it with human intervention and assistance. It appears that the capabilities of the AI at its heart hasn't evolved sufficiently to fulfill Facebook's early ambitions. No doubt the company is still working on future capabilities for its virtual assistant, and releasing it to millions of users in its limited form will hasten the learning process.

Bixby, can you hear me?

Facebook isn't the only case of a virtual assistant with great promise not yet living up to its potential. When Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) bought AI start-up Viv late last year, it acquired a virtual assistant with capabilities that far exceeded anything yet available, as shown in this demonstration at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last year. The AI was capable of understanding complex, long-tailed questions and responding to follow up requests, something that current virtual assistants still struggle with. The Viv assistant was renamed Bixby and expectations were high that Bixby would be included in the soon to be released Galaxy S8 smartphone.

In a blog post, Samsung's head of research and development, InJong Rhee, confirmed that Bixby would debut and contain a unified system that would integrate voice commands, though only in a limited number of native apps, with plans to add additional integration over time. Samsung then confirmed to The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that Bixby would be unable to respond to voice commands when the phone made its debut in the U.S. later this month. While Bixby was apparently fluent in Korean, it had difficulty with its voice-recognition feature in English. Samsung had hoped that in the light of Bixby's brilliance, memories of the Galaxy Note 7 disaster would fade. We'll have to wait and see if Bixby's shortcomings will affect the Galaxy S8's sales.

Not ready for prime time

These issues demonstrate that while amazing advances are being made in the field of AI, challenges remain. Not every development will live up to its potential and failures will occur. Some will happen behind the scenes, while others play out in the public eye.

These virtual assistants are add-on features that don't yet produce meaningful revenue, but public flops might create negative public perception or affect buying decisions. 

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