Facebook announces a new digital assistant, ‘M’

Facebook has announced a new utility that will assist Messenger users with booking appointments, shopping online, and performing other mundane tasks. The service, called M, will reportedly debut to “a few hundred” people in the Bay Area before it expands to everyone else.
M is billed as the first digital assistant that can actually help people with their daily lives. Most of its competitors — Cortana, Google Now, Siri, etc. — are limited to presenting their users with information. Facebook’s David Marcus says M was designed to be able to “actually complete tasks on your behalf.”

A screenshot of Facebook's new virtual assistant service "M," which will be featured in the company's Messenger app.

A screenshot of Facebook’s new virtual assistant service “M,” which will be featured in the company’s Messenger app.

That’s a hell of a promise. And in its effort to fulfill it, Facebook seems to be playing it safe, whether it’s by limiting M to information it collects on its own or promising that the algorithms that dictate its behavior are overseen by humans. (They’re the ones who make sure M doesn’t mistakenly spend users’ money.)
Facebook users concerned about their privacy should know that M doesn’t use information shared with its parent service. It asks questions about what people want, and if it can’t perform well based on those answers, it asks follow-ups. Marcus told Wired that this could eventually change, but that Facebook would require users’ consent before it started spoon-feeding M their personal data.
That’s a far cry from Google Now’s seeming omniscience, or the amount of information Microsoft collects for its digital assistant, Cortana. There’s a slight weirdness factor given that real human beings know what you want M to do, but at least the service doesn’t seem to be gathering all kinds of private data.
Facebook is also playing it safe with M by limiting it to just a few hundred users. That’s a very, very small portion of its 1 billion users — and restricting M to that small an audience, at least at the beginning, makes sense. Better to get people excited about a toy they have to wait for than to force something that doesn’t work as well as people expect (obligatory Louis CK reference) into their hands.
A seemingly thoughtful approach to user privacy and a desire to get the product right instead of just shipping it to a few million people all at once? That’s much more cautious than Facebook was about new product rollouts in the past. It’s enough to make me wonder if the company is emphasizing quality over speed.