In late March, Facebook gave the world a peek at its grand ambition: to use the Messenger platform to effectively become the internet. Yesterday evening, thanks to a test rollout of the company's virtual personal assistant program, M, some of us were treated to a glimpse of how that process is likely going to go down.
Late last night, M popped up in my co-worker's Messenger app, and, within moments, started behaving exactly like, well, a real human being.
It worked seamlessly, drawing information from other platforms like Yelp. It booked flights (M seems really good at helping you spend your money), explained how to use Snapchat, and recognized articles my colleague had written. It was a little stiff, perhaps, but an effective researcher and a reasonable conversation partner. As my colleague’s screengrabs spread around the internet, watching people tweet about it began to feel almost surreal — a bit Skynet-y. One Twitter user said that M helped him lower his Comcast bill.
As Wired reported back in August, M is the product of humans and AI working together. M is both supervised and supported by real people, meaning no, an algorithm didn’t call Comcast to haggle the bill — a human did. Or maybe it didn’t! Likely for this reason, out of the gate, M’s use cases feel less gimmicky than those of Siri or Google Now or Cortana, and more like something you’d do if you had a real human concierge at your beck and call. And, if you’re Facebook, it’s the perfect carrot to lure hundreds of millions of people into Messenger’s all-encompassing operating system — and keep them there.
The Messenger ecosystem that Facebook unveiled in March was an attempt to take over your apps from the inside out, by turning itself into a platform developers could build into. If fully realized by Facebook, it wouldn’t just look like the internet — it would be the internet.
But the internet is enormous and difficult to navigate. That, and we’re lazy. One way around this is to build a bunch of apps, which was a core premise of the F8 announcement. But even when broken into apps, discovery and user attention can pose a problem. And so now mobile ecosystem builders like Apple and Google are experimenting with different, newer ways to unbundle content within apps beyond notifications. There’s Google Now on Tap, which tries to index your phone like a big Google search, and there’s Apple’s "peek and pop" touch interface, which only exists for those with an iPhone 6s, but which very well might change how we conceive of the diminishing role of apps on our home screens.
If Facebook’s F8 plan was to move all your browsing, organizing, scheduling, commerce (it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Messenger is also a payments system), and customer service under its own roof, it only makes sense that it would find a way to make these features so simple that you don’t even have to do anything. Terminator anxieties aside, our first glimpses of M show off a personal assistant that’s the product of serious R&D, and oodles of Facebook-collected user data — and that is ridiculously, almost incomprehensibly, useful.
And so Facebook’s M looks, at first glance to be a formidable contender, here in the Unbundling Wars. Apple and Google, try as they may, don’t occupy the same space as Facebook does for well over a billion people. Apple and Google are great at hardware and software, but for most people, their services don’t resemble the totality of the internet experience the way Facebook does. Apple and Google are allegiances and choices. Facebook just is. Through that lens, then, M is a most powerful guide, able to make sense of not only the ecosystem of your smartphone, but the greater world around you. Add real, live, assisting humans to that mix and you’ve got something so useful it’s scary.