Here’s how Facebook’s new digital assistant works in the real world

October 15, 2015, 6:11 PM UTC
Social Media Illustrations
Privacy setting shortcuts are displayed on Apple Inc. iPhone 6 smartphone screen as a FaceBook Inc. logo is seen in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K., on Friday, May, 15, 2015.
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

It seems you can’t be a world-dominating tech giant these days without a digital assistant.

Facebook (FB) threw its hat in the ring in August with “M,” a kind of concierge service that works through the social network’s Messenger app. Right now, Facebook is only testing M among a small subset of users in San Francisco, but BuzzFeed reporter Alex Kantrowitz is among them and has offered some first-hand impressions.

Using “M,” Kantrowitz was able to go through the entire process of booking a flight from San Francisco to New York over Thanksgiving, with the assistant automatically searching out the cheapest flights, and even recommending changes in departure time to save additional money. Kantrowitz was also able to pay for the flight using Kayak within his conversation with M, and add the dates for the trip to his Google calendar:

M’s demeanor during the interactions is probably best described as chirpy, like a cheerful customer service rep. That’s probably because the digital assistant is powered in part by actual customer service reps that Facebook has hired to help the AI powering M handle user requests. Google (GOOG) Now and Siri, which are entirely machine-driven in their user interactions, feel robotic in comparison.

Still, there are obviously many kinks to be worked out. When Kantrowitz asked M to “call an Uber,” it was unable to fulfill the request. And while having real people step in when M’s AI gets tripped up may work for a small test, it’s a model that won’t scale to serve all of Messenger’s 700 million users. Facebook’s plan is to use the interactions with users and input from human customer service reps to eventually make the M AI smart enough to ride solo.

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