Remember Facebook's ambitious 'M' personal assistant project?
Launched with a small group of users back in August 2015, M was Facebook's new way to make Messenger your ultimate organizational tool.
As outlined in their original vision:
"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, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more."
At that time, M was powered by a combination of AI and human intervention, with the human 'trainers' providing guidance on more complex tasks (and drawing pictures) with a view to, eventually, teaching M how to do it all by itself. Essentially, the trainers were supposed to train themselves out of the job.
Based on their learnings from these initial trials, Facebook has now refined M into a new assistant tool, which is being rolled out to all Messenger users in the U.S. And while it'll no longer provide you with hand-drawn images of baseball greats, the new M could play a big part in broadening their ambitions for the growth of Messenger - and Messenger bots in particular.
As you can see from the above image, the new M has been simplified into a set of core actions - only five are shown here, but Facebook notes there's actually six key M functions to begin with.
- Sending stickers: M shares fun sticker suggestions for your daily life interactions like "Thank you" or "Bye-bye."
- Paying or requesting money: M recognizes when people are discussing payments and gives them the option of easily sending or requesting money.
- Sharing your location: M can suggest an option to share your location during a conversation.
- Making plans: If people are talking about getting together, M helps coordinating a plan.
- Starting a poll (in group conversations only): Have a hard time making decisions in a group? M lets you set a poll topic and vote in group conversations.
- Getting a Ride: Talking about going somewhere? M suggests "Get A Ride" and shares an option of Lyft or Uber.
Using machine learning, an 'M'' logo will appear in your Messenger chats whenever the system "recognizes intent in a conversation".
Facebook's actually been trialing these options for some time - they added automated payment prompts and polls for some users back in September, while they've also been testing event reminders when their text recognition system identifies potential assistance opportunities.
M is basically an extension of this - and while it's starting out with more limited functionality than originally planned, it's not hard to imagine M eventually serving a similar function to Google Assistant, which has been built into Google's Allo messaging app.
The potential of this could be significant - as noted by TechCrunch, the inclusion of Lyft and Uber ride hailing services as options within M could form the basis of a recommendation engine to better link Messenger users to relevant bot tools and options. Bot discovery has been a big problem for the platform thus far - there are currently more than 34,000 active Messenger bots, but few people would be aware of them. As the M system develops - and if it sees widespread adoption by users - it could become a key vehicle for bot promotion, detecting more and more intent signals and recommending relevant automated tools to assist.
This could also play into Facebook's reported upcoming announcement of bots within group chats - as noted in the M release notes, M will be active in group conversations (for polls), which could mean that they could also use M to recommend relevant bot options.
For example, let's say you're in a group conversation and you're discussing which movie to go see - the current iteration of M could suggest a poll to help you come to a decision. But then, if M were also linked to other bot functions, M might also be able to show you relevant movie times, all in-stream.
This functionality could be enabled as an extension of the recent Messenger change where you can @mention someone within a Messenger conversation.
Using this, you might also, theoretically, be able to @mention a relevant bot - but then, of course, you'd have to know the bot's handle. But what if, like Google Assistant, you could just enter @M and let the system find it for you?
"@m what time is Beauty and the Beast on?"
M could then connect you to the relevant bot service for a local theater, through which you might be able to make a booking, even buy tickets, all in-stream and without having to know every specific bot handle individually.
We're not at this level yet, but you can see how M could play a bigger part in the discovery and connection process, building on the current bot eco-system with automated detection tools, all designed to make your interactions easier.
And if that does happen, virtual assistant optimization - ensuring your bot is the one recommended - could become a much bigger consideration for brands.
But then again, maybe M will be intrusive, maybe users won't like having automated recommendations pop-up in their private chats, a reminder that Facebook is tracking every action you take. Facebook does note that they've seen great success with the new M in trial mode, and they're rolling it out in the US, as opposed to a smaller market, which suggests some confidence.
Either way, M represents the next level for Facebook's AI systems and assistant technology, and the next step towards utilizing machine learning to recommend options and features. And with the growth of such tools, along with the development of home assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home, you can expect to see more advances on this front moving forward.
In addition to this, Messenger is also rolling out a new, simplified composer interface, which is rolling out globally on both iOS and Android.