Facebook introduces virtual personal assistant

Facebook introduces virtual personal assistant
A man poses for photographs in front of the Facebook sign on the company's campus in Menlo Park, Calif. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
Apple’s Siri may soon have some serious competition.
Facebook said Wednesday that it has begun testing a personal digital assistant powered by both human and artificial intelligence that can help book appointments, make purchases and deliver information.
The company calls the virtual assistant M. It will exist inside Facebook Messenger, the social media giant’s instant-messaging platform.
Facebook employees will supervise the service, which sets it apart from Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana -- virtual assistants that are run purely by technology.

“Unlike other [artificial intelligence]-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf,” David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, said in a blog post. “It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more.”

Facebook is investing heavily in its stand-alone Messenger app in recognition of the growing role of mobile devices in the battle for digital market share — particularly against search giant Google.
Users of the M virtual assistant can make money transfers, activate a map to share locations with friends and even turn text into songs.
Businesses can also use the app to connect directly with customers.

M is reportedly being tested by a few hundred people in the Bay Area.

“This is early in the journey to build M into an at-scale service,” Marcus wrote. “But it's an exciting step towards enabling people on Messenger to get things done across a variety of things, so they can get more time to focus on what's important in their lives.”

Facebook is the latest tech giant to get into the voice-recognition game. Last year, introduced Echo, a hands-free device controlled by a user’s voice. The black, cylindrical device can provide information, music, news, weather, traffic and more, and can hear users from across the room.

Twitter: @dhpierson