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Here’s how Facebook’s new M virtual assistant will pay for itself

Here’s how Facebook’s new M virtual assistant will pay for itself

A brilliant mobile strategy to get us to use Facebook more, or a brilliant strategy to get us to use Facebook for payments? Both.

If you live in the Bay Area, you’re in luck. Facebook is rolling out a very limited trial of a new virtual assistant called M. While the name might not have anything to do with the James Bond movies, it’s easily accessible right within the familiar chat interface on mobile devices. A spokesperson gave me a few more details about what M can do, and it sounds quite a bit like the new Cortana assistant in Windows 10, Apple’s Siri assistant, and Google Now. For a lucky few, M shows up as link in your feed.

In case you haven't noticed, there’s an entire segment of the population who spend most of their computing and mobile time on Facebook and not anywhere else on the Web. They browse through local “swap” listings looking for used furniture. They check the news using the Trending links. They chat with friends and don’t use email. (I know a few millennials who don’t even maintain an email address at all and just created one so they could register for Facebook.) Why use any other apps at all?

Now, the M virtual assistant can answer questions about just about any topic. At a basic level, you can ask M to make a dinner reservation, check your flight, book a hotel, or even send flowers to your spouse. The service is a combination of artificial intelligence and human operators (the ones who pick up the phone and order the flowers, according to the rep). It parses your queries and understands your intent.

That’s not too impressive, since it is something you can do with other virtual assistants. What impressed me is that you can go well beyond this. You can set a reminder for yourself to mow the lawn next weekend, and M will bug you about it. You can ask M to call your local cable company and request a copy of your bill. You can ask about products to buy online. If you ask about activities in your area, you’ll get a few options to investigate. The algorithms seem fairly open ended.

My contact said Facebook M does not use any of these queries to feed you relevant ads. There’s no way to test if it works quite yet, but it’s further proof that Facebook is building a world-within-a-world for those who don’t really care to go outside of the safe confines of a social network. It’s also a brilliant mobile strategy. Anyone can type a short quip into a chat-box. It’s much harder to perform complex searches or research on your phone, so when you ask a robot to do some of the grunt work and then the bot hands off the task to an operator, you are using your smartphone only as an initial point of contact -- a short jump from a phone call or text.

If you initiate a conversation with M on your phone, you can continue the exchange at your desk or from a laptop. That’s further proof that Facebook intends M to be a mobile entry point.

Of course, there’s no way to know if the M bot is helpful. He/she seems to borrow some elements of Siri but actually follows the model of an app like Infiniti Personal Assistant. That service runs from within the car but also as an app on your phone. Real people take your requests. You can ask them to send you directions, book a room, or check movie listings. (They drew the line on me once when I asked the agent to help one of my kids with her history homework.)

I’m a little surprised at one thing. M is not using queries to serve you ads, and you can use it to book a hotel room or check football scores for free. But here’s where the business strategy comes in. My guess is that Facebook’s ultimate goal is to convince people that Facebook should also handle our money. You can already send payments through Messenger. Isn’t it just a matter of time before those flowers you order through M are also managed through some sort of Facebook payment system? I can see how this would work. You pay a few hundreds dollars for “credits” the same way you pay for ads that show up in the feeds of your target customers. When you order flowers or buy movie tickets, Facebook just deducts the fees. Er, for a fee.

It’s too early to tell if any of this will work out. I’m curious to try it, mostly because I want to play the stump-the-robot game and see if the jokes M can tell you are funny.

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