Facebook has been slowly rolling out its M Messenger virtual assistant to people in California in recent weeks. Think of M as a Siri that can do things for you in the real world: everything from reducing your cable bill to finding you a nearby yoga class.
M is a combination of human beings and AI that work together to complete tasks you send it. The people are meant to be “trainers,” showing the AI how to do things. For now, M seems to be largely leaning on human beings for anything beyond very simple Siri-like requests (what’s the weather like, please set an alarm for me, etc.). But the grand idea is that over time the humans will do less and less, as the AI becomes more and more autonomous — more and more human.
Although it’s just weeks old, M can already do lots of amazing things, as my colleague Alex Kantrowitz has chronicled. Yet it’s also extremely limited right now. Only a relative handful of Facebook’s users have it (it launched with “a few hundred” in August and has been slowly expanding since then) all of whom are at least ostensibly in California. Also, it seems like an incredibly ambitious, potentially extremely expensive experiment.
So when M popped up in my list of Messenger contacts, I was eager to probe it and see what it could and couldn’t do. I wanted to understand how it worked.
2. Like: Would it lie to me?
3. Yes. Yes, M will lie to me.
4. Could it bring me a puppy?
5. Kiiiiiiiiind of.
6. But what about something more complex?
I decided to see if M could send a friendly parrot to visit with my friend/media competitor Kevin Roose at Fusion. But I made the request in a way that I hoped was hard to parse.
The idea here was to present M with a complex request, one that was wordy, full of nuance, hard to fulfill, and ethically sticky. (And, borrowed from Richard Stallman.)
So, could M book a parrot?
7. You bet your ass M can order a parrot.
And not just any parrots, they were magnificent birds. Beautiful, friendly, and rare. They came from a place called Happy Birds, a Bay Area business that puts on parrot performances.
8. One of the birds could open a beer.
10. Here’s Kevin with a bird on his head taking a selfie.
11. M even negotiated a better price for me, and I got a few of Kevin’s other friends and competitors to chip in.
(And as it turned out, Facebook didn’t take a cut of the $150; the entire fee went to the company that brought the birds. How will it make money from this? My guess is that it will be, to some extent, a beach head. An entry point to get people to enter their credit card information into Messenger, which they then ultimately end up using for other transactions. Facebook wants Messenger to be a seamless platform for you to buy things and make payments. But to get there, first it needs your credit card number. )
But the ultimate point in this wasn’t just to send some bird’s Kevin’s way, it was to better understand how M worked. While the birds were certainly cool, my request for them provided an interesting look at how M actually works.
Because M used an outside company called Happy Birds to fulfill my request, I was able to reverse engineer its process to some extent. I could talk to someone who interacted with M on the other side. That someone was Happy Birds’ Julie Cardoza.
M might be able to do a lot of things, but it doesn’t exactly have a flock of parrots sitting around, waiting to roll out on-demand. When M ventures in the outside world — which is a large part of its promise, it has to bump up against humans. And when it does, it drops the pretense of AI altogether and becomes just another cog in the gig economy.
“M contacted us, that’s her name, she made it seem like she was your personal assistant,” said Cardoza, who had never heard of Facebook’s M Messenger, nor had any idea that she was dealing with a Facebook representative at all until BuzzFeed News explained. “But when I asked her questions she didn’t know anything.”
Cardoza said it took several calls for M to complete the transaction, four or five in all. When Cardoza asked what Fusion was, the woman claiming to be M had to call back to give her a reply (she incorrectly said it was a restaurant). This initially made Cardoza suspicious — why wouldn’t M know more details?
“She kind of danced around that part a bit,” Cardoza explained. “She said, ‘I’m doing it for someone else.’ She said ‘well, it’s for my boss’ friend.’”
There was another indicator, however, that this was a legitimate request. Just after the woman claiming to be M called Happy Birds, the company received an identical request through GigSalad — an online platform where performers and event services can connect with interested clients.
This wasn’t the only time I saw evidence of M turning to independent contractors on other platforms to execute requests. When I tried to get it to send a Minion to my colleague Katie Notopoulos (she loves Minions) it helpfully offered that “I am able to set up a Tasker with Task Rabbit to go purchase a minion costume and can come interact and entertain for 20-30 min at a rate of $150 for the hour.” (I deemed this too expensive.)
In fact, much of M’s real-word efforts seem to run on contractors. Facebook confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the trainers are all independent contractors. Which to some extent answers the question of how Facebook can scale this up, before M becomes fully automated. It will take an army of humans, each doing small tasks. Simply put, before Facebook can make its robot act like lots of humans, it needs a lot of humans to act like robots.
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