Facebook M and the Future of Intelligent Assistants

There’s been a lot of press coverage about Facebook’s launch of their new Messenger app virtual assistant M. M is a human-assisted artificial intelligence. Users communicate with it primarily via texting, not by voice. The feature that differentiates Facebook’s M from Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana is the system’s reliance on humans.

Facebook MessengerThe humans who assist the M algorithms are called trainers. They’re given that designation, because their job is to do what the intelligent assistant should be able to do, but doesn’t yet know how to do. Every step the trainers execute to complete a task is recorded and goes into the vast database that will become new fodder for M’s deep learning algorithms. Eventually, when someone asks M to call the DMV to set up an appointment for a driving test, M will know the steps it needs to carry out and everything it needs to say along the way to get the task completed.

M is designed to offer assistance with a broad range of activities, from suggesting and buying the perfect birthday gift for a loved one, to planning and booking a vacation, to making dinner reservations.

In a recent article about M written by Cade Metz for Wired, Facebook’s Alex Lebrun is quoted using the term “bootstrapping.” The human trainers bootstrap M by filling in for the gaps in its knowledgebase. They are only present to help the AI grow smarter, until such time as their assistance is no longer required.

Are you scared yet?

In the Wired interview, Lebrun seems to be saying that you shouldn’t be, because humans will be required into the foreseeable future to aid the AI in learning how to carry out ever more complex tasks. The other comforting factor for those who are nervous about the future of humanity: we don’t know if Lebrun’s plan will work. There’s no certainty that the trainers will follow repeatable, or easily duplicated, steps for many tasks. Recommending a great birthday gift isn’t as easy as learning how to recognize cats after watching a million cat videos.

And who’s to say that DMV employees won’t just hang up when an intelligent assistant calls to schedule your driving test appointment. Unless, that is, the DMV employee is an AI too. Hmmm.

Another question people are asking: is the model of augmenting the AI’s weaknesses with human trainers scalable? If people start to rely on M and the number of users increases, how many trainers will Facebook need to hire? And how many people want the job of intercepting people’s text messages and pretending to be their virtual assistant? Apparently enough people do. A recent article in TechCrunch lists a slew of apps that let users text “expert shoppers” who make recommendations and purchases on a user’s behalf.

The strategy that Facebook is taking with M signals that a couple of trends have staying power. Firstly, texting is becoming ever more entrenched as the preferred way to communicate using mobile devices. Will wearables change that, forcing a shift to voice? That remains to be seen. Secondly, the novelty of mobile personal assistants that can tell us the weather, do math, recite facts from Wikipedia, and offer the occasional joke has passed. People want assistants to do more for them and pure AI isn’t up to the challenge yet.

Will Facebook’s experiment be successful? If it is, the more important question might be: what does it mean for the future of intelligent assistants?

Aivo Virtual Agents on Facebook

LuigiI recently had an opportunity to try out several of Aivo’s virtual agents on Facebook. Aivo is a company offering virtual agent technology for the customer support segment. They call their product AgentBot and the technology is available on multiple channels, including social media platforms. Two AgentBots are available to chat with from Aivo’s Facebook page.

One of the virtual agents is Luigi, a virtual spokesperson for the Fiat brand in Argentina. I like how Luigi is available as an app from the Aivo page. Just click on the app and a special page appears within Facebook with an image of Luigi, a list of frequently asked questions, and a dialogue box that invites you to ask about Fiat cars and services in Argentina. The fact that you can chat with the agent without leaving Facebook is a big plus. You can converse with Luigi in Spanish. My Spanish is pretty nonexistent, but I was impressed with Luigi’s ability to understand and respond to my questions. I asked Luigi how much a Fiat costs. I expected some sort of vague response. Instead, Luigi asked me to select from a list of Fiat models. Once I’d selected the model, I was presented with an image of the car and a base price. I also got a list of options and other features.

Another very social feature of the Luigi Agentbot app is the user’s ability to rate each of the agent’s responses with a thumbs up or thumbs down. If you choose a thumbs down, you can be more precise about the reason for the down vote. All of this information is presumably funneled back into the database to help make Luigi smarter over time.

Sofia is another AgentBot representing Telefonica. She’s available to speak with from the Telefonica Facebook page. Her chat interface is also embedded within Facebook so that the user doesn’t have to exit the Facebook landscape to engage in a conversation. I started a chat session with Sofia, but my Spanish was so lame that she quickly realized I needed special attention. She seemed to try to refer me to a live chat support agent.  She also presented me with a form that I could fill out in order to get a call back from a customer service rep.

Virtual agents that can engage with customers from within the social channels they frequent can be very compelling. These Aivo AgentBots are a good example of virtual agents designed for social spaces.