Facebook Forks Out S**tloads to Disrupt Digital Assistants

Facebook debuted M yesterday, its answer to Google Now, Siri, and Cortana. Will M, which is being tested among select users in the Bay Area, become the definitive digital assistant, further boosting Facebook into a bigger Google rival – or is the company out of its depth?

Built on top of Facebook Messenger, M differs from the other digital assistants because it’s powered and supervised by humans. A crazily expensive waste of money you may ask? Yes, we thought that, too, but M addresses a big pain point with the others, as Jimmy Kimmel exemplifed last year by lampooning Siri’s infamous tendency to mishear questions. This also gives M the ability to answer more open-ended questions such as, “Can you make me dinner reservations?”

Like its competition, M has artificial intelligence that works to understand and answer your question. However, rather than reply, the technology sends its answer to people behind-the-scenes at Facebook who decide whether additional information is needed. If you ask M to tell you a joke, it will get one from an Internet joke API and a person at Facebook would determine whether or not it was funny. If you ask M to make you a dinner reservation, a person at Facebook will call the restaurant.

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This pits Facebook against Google in yet another area. During a mock job interview, CNN Money hired Google Now, deeming it superior to Siri, Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa.

“At this early stage, this feels like Facebook is pouring millions into solving a first-world problem that doesn’t need any more attention. ‘I’m in Chicago next week – I’m looking for a great burger.’ Why not try TripAdvisor or Google?” says Tom Ollerton, marketing director at We Are Social.

Encouraging people to not try Google may be the core of M. Ollerton wonders whether the social media giant may be too ambitious, though he points out that M’s success would make Facebook a bigger player in several areas: data collection, mobile and voice search, as well as the increasingly competitive messaging app space.

“[Facebook] has tried to take on search in the past – for example, with Graph Search – but has had limited success,” Ollerton says. “I’m not convinced M will be the silver bullet Facebook is after, but it is another example of Facebook’s constant innovation in its bid to rule the Web.”

Last week, traffic analytics firm Parse.ly analyzed referral traffic to news sites and found that Facebook pulled ahead of Google last quarter. The company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Andrew Montalenti, referred to “Facebook executing Google’s playbook,” something he also thinks applies to M.

Montalenti recalls that in 2010, Google acquired the social search engine Aardvark, which connected people asking questions with those who could answer them. Aardvark was discontinued the following year, but Montalenti points out that you can see its roots in M.

“What strikes me is that there’s a lot of effort being placed in trying to own the daily habits of users. Both Google and Facebook are fighting it out to see who gets to be the homepage for getting news updates on the Internet,” Montalenti says, adding that the other habit is rooted in instant gratification of wanting answers and solutions now. “Microsoft, Google, Facebook all realize this is an important habit to tap into. It isn’t surprising to me that the personal assistant space is of interest to all of them.”

While Facebook may be nipping at its heels in other areas, Montalenti points out that M highlights the company’s biggest struggle to compete with Google: its lack of owned platforms and products. That lack of ownership also translates to the user experience. M requires users to boot up an app, whereas those using Siri on their iPhones simply have to hold down the home button.

“Google and Apple both benefit from actually being installed at the core of these smartphone devices, which gives them so many deeper product-level integrations and makes it easier for their products to be an effortless part of people’s daily work flow,” he says. “I think Facebook put AI into Messenger because it realized that perhaps IMing through Messenger was the closest thing it had to a platform that people are running that’s associated with Facebook.”

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