Facebook reportedly creating virtual assistant for Messenger

Known internally as "Moneypenny," the assistant would actually let you ask real people for help with different tasks, including ordering products and services.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

An assistant called Moneypenny could be slated for Facebook's Messenger app. James Martin/CNET

In the world of James Bond, Moneypenny is the name of the assistant of Bond's boss M. But in the world of Facebook, Moneypenny could turn out to be an assistant for the app's millions of users.

The social network is purportedly testing a new virtual assistant that would work within its Facebook Messenger app, which allows you to chat with fellow Facebook users. But the service would actually tap into real people who would answer questions for you and help you with research, specifically in purchasing products and services, among other tasks, The Information reported on Tuesday.

Several major players have already introduced their own digital assistants for mobile devices, namely Apple with Siri, Google with Google Now and Microsoft with Cortana. But those assistants are machine-driven, and are sometimes more frustrating than helpful. By using real people to respond to your requests, Moneypenny is likely to avoid much of that frustration. But Facebook would also go up against other so-called "concierge" services cited by The Information, including Magic, Operator, GoButler and Fetch. All of these employ text messaging with real people or a combination of people and technology to help you deal with a company, order products and services and conduct other transactions.

Facebook already has a large audience for Messenger with 700 million people using it on a monthly basis. But the company wants its Messenger service to be about more than just text messaging. As such, Facebook has been adding more features to Messenger this year, including video chats, a way to send money through the app and the ability to ask retailers for order confirmations and shipping updates. So Moneypenny seems like a natural evolution in expanding Messenger's skills with the aim of drawing more users to the app.

What specific features the service will offer at launch and just how people will answer your requests is unclear for now, according to The Information. No launch date has been revealed, but Facebook employees are reportedly trying out the product at this point.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company does not comment on rumors or speculation.

Update, 10:35 a.m. PT: Adds Facebook declining to comment.