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David Marcus/Facebook
digital assistant

Here's why you might willingly tell Facebook everything about you

It’s testing a new service for a virtual assistant.

BACK IN MARCH, Facebook announced a couple of new additions to its Messenger service as a way of turning it into its own platform.

Now it’s preparing to take its biggest step forward with the introduction of M, an experimental feature that is part digital assistant (think Siri and Google Now), part call centre.

The service is only available to a select few in San Francisco but the aim is to make this a global feature, where all users will refer to it any time they’re looking for suggestions or help.

9k= David Marcus / Facebook David Marcus / Facebook / Facebook

So what is M?

The idea of M is presented as a virtual assistant, one that can make reservations, find you a birthday gift, and provide suggestions for getaways before helping you book one. It works by simply messaging it before receiving a reply with your answer.

Perhaps the most interesting part is that M isn’t fully autonomous. Instead, it will be artificial intelligence (AI) that’s both trained and supervised by people. The reason for this is that there are tasks and judgements that AI isn’t capable of completing yet.

While the goal is to have M working on its own and learning from patterns so it will eventually be able to carry out more complicated tasks, vice president of messaging products David Marcus told Wired it may have to hire thousands of trainers in the future to help keep up with demand.

Facebook already has put in a lot of work into AI, having its own division dedicated to research in the area, but it’s still very much in the rudimentary stages.

So what are Facebook’s plans for it?

To note, this is still in the experimentation phase so a rollout across the US, let alone globally, will happen slowly.

Yet like all Facebook services, the aim is to get enough people using it regularly first before introducing a revenue stream. If you’re not paying with money, then you’re paying with data and M will naturally be geared towards the latter.

Speaking to Wired, Marcus said the aim is to create a virtual assistant so powerful it would be the first thing everybody will use when they’re looking for something to do or if they want to buy something.

We start capturing all of your intent for the things you want to do… Intent often leads to buying something, or to a transaction, and that’s an opportunity for us to [make money] over time.

Before he joined Facebook, Marcus was with PayPal so he has experience with running payments services. Messenger already has its own payments service in the US and that’s one of the things driving M, the ability to pay for goods and services quickly and easily.

11089059_10152643542921851_826914771_o Facebook's David Marcus speaking at its F8 event back in March. Facebook Facebook

For now, M only uses the data you tell it within the Messenger app instead of taking data from your main Facebook profile, but if it did, it would gives it a significant advantage over other digital assistants.

Whether Facebook will use that data gathered for other reasons, targeted advertising for example, isn’t clear.

It’s something that Buzzfeed Tech has expressed concern about. Personal assistants thrive on knowing as much as possible about you, either through your actions or what you tell it.

With M, Facebook will also be collecting and storing information about where you go to dinner, what you bought your niece for her birthday, and how much you’re willing to spend on concert tickets. While the company isn’t selling that data to third parties right now, there’s no doubt that the better an automated assistant serves you, the more it has to know about you. There’s no such thing as a free secretary.

Read: You could help fix potholes by driving over them >

Read: Here’s how to disable the in-app browser for Facebook >

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