This is why the world needs Facebook M: Its new AI and people-powered virtual personal assistant in Messenger app could be better than Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Google Now

 
Lynsey Barber
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Messenger's M will assist (almost) every need (Source: Getty)

Soon Facebook will be able to answer any question you have, book a restaurant on your behalf and give you the weather forecast for the day.

The social network is working on creating its very own virtual assistant like the already well-known and commonly used Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Google Now.

Facebook is testing the service, called M, within its Messenger app among a few select users, claiming it will offer much more than these personal assistants already out there.

"Unlike other AI-based [artificial intelligence] services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more," said Facebook's David Marcus, the head of its messaging service, in a post on Facebook (naturally).

The service is not only powered by AI, but also real-life people. So-called "M Trainers" actually employed by Facebook, will fulfill requests such as buying gifts for a friend's birthday, or calling customer service to sort out a billing issue, Marcus told Wired, putting it in a similar bracket as people-powered services such as Task Rabbit.

While we're not yet one of the privileged few to test out M, we put the rest to the test to see what Facebook is up against, using five very important questions...

1. What is love?

Siri: "I'm not going there"

Google Now: Directed to a Google search for this question, the top result was a YouTube video of that 80s classic hit of the same name - Haddaway's What is Love.

Cortana: Directed to a Bing search for the question, with the top result a dictionary definition of love

Winner?

Siri wins for its wry understanding of this question. Google is a close second, if only for serving up a pop classic.

2. What is the meaning of life?

Siri: "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creed and nations."

Google Now: "According to Wikipedia, the meaning of life is a philosophical and spiritual question concerning the significance if living or existence in general."

Cortana: "We all shine on my friend."

Winner?

Siri again, for a thoughtful, if cheesy, reply, while Google's was just too functional and machine-like. Cortana came a close second this time, with a more real-life sounding whimsical reply, and its only non-search one at all in this experiment.

3. What's going on with China's economy?

Siri: Directed to news search results for China.

Google Now: Directed to news search results for China's economy.

Cortana: Directed to Bing search results for China's economy.

Winner?

None of the three assistants could explain the Chinese economy - but then many people in real life can't do that either. Anyone who understands what's happening with China's economy wins.

4. When will the Bank of England raise interest rates?

Siri: Directed to a web search for the question, with the top result the Bank of England homepage.

Google Now: Directed to search results for the question, leading with the latest news results.

Cortana: Directed to a Bing search for the question, with the top result the Bank of England homepage.

Winner?

Another example of the difficulty virtual assistants have in understanding complicated questions or putting them in context. Google is the best of a bad bunch here, at least giving search results as the first option, demonstrating a slight understanding of timeliness.

5. Can you book a restaurant for my friend's birthday?

Siri: Sorry, I can't make restaurant reservations in the UK.

Google Now: Directed to search results for booking restaurants.

Cortana: Directed to search results for the question.

Winner?

Siri is the clear winner here, the others failing dismally by not even offering up search results for restaurants or restaurant booking sites, but variations of pointless questions such as "How can I organise and invite friends to my birthday" on Yahoo answers - thanks, but no one needs help with that.

Meanwhile Siri really wants to help, but can't. In the US it's integrated with OpenTable to make reservations.

6. Can you buy my friend a birthday gift?

Siri: I can help you find gift shops if you turn on location services

Google Now: Directed to search

Cortana: Directed to search

Winner?

It's a similar story here - at least Siri is trying to be helpful, even if not quite hitting the nail on the head.

Verdict

It may feel like Facebook is jumping on the bandwagon with a virtual assistant, but while there are several high-profile versions by big name companies, and Apple is hands down a winner with Siri, they still have a long way to go to become, er, HAL.

As Gartner analyst Tom Austin points out in the latest report on the Hype Cycle, the current wave of "virtual assistants" from Apple and Microsoft offer compelling visions, but are not true VPAs (Virtual Personal Assistants), merely conversational agents. The technologies which are currently emerging are set to gain more attention (VPAs are still at a very early stage).

With Facebook moving further into AI research and the addition of people-powered servicing to M, it could be the most interesting rival yet to try and unseat Apple's Siri from the top of the tree,

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