Facebook adds Siri rival to Messenger

The social-networking giant launches its artificial intelligence-based personal assistant to compete with Apple's Siri and Google's Now. Can it beat out the other guys?

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
2 min read

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Facebook hopes its M artificial intelligence technology will attract people to use Messenger even more. Facebook

The next time you're looking for a good burger, why not just ask Facebook?

That's the message behind a new feature for the world's largest social network that's being built into its text-like messaging service, Facebook Messenger. The new service, called M, began being turned on for users Wednesday, offering them a way to tap the vast stores of knowledge in the company's databases for useful information.

Facebook said M can help users with all manner of things, from finding good baby gifts to ordering flowers for a friend's birthday.

"M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more," David Marcus, head of messaging at Facebook, wrote in a statement.

Facebook isn't the only company offering artificial intelligence, of course. What was once just thought of as science fiction, a computer that understands and correctly responds to a user's commands has become the cause du jour in the tech industry. Apple calls it Siri, Google says it's Google Now, IBM has Watson, and Microsoft just released its version called Cortana. They all have different names, but they're trying to do the same thing: Make using our devices as easy and natural to use as possible.

Facebook said it has made some headway programming artificial intelligence technology. During its conference for developers earlier this year, the company discussed how it taught a computer to understand the plot of the book series, "The Lord of the Rings," enough to answer related questions correctly.

Still, all this new technology being created throughout the tech industry is all somewhat rudimentary compared to the promise of what Hollywood has dreamed up. Artificial intelligence software like that of Hal in "2001: A Space Odyssey" or the type that powered the lovable Wall-E in the Pixar film of the same name is still a way off, though that hasn't stopped prominent Silicon Valley executives from debating the potential threat they pose.

In the meantime, Facebook said it hopes M will help people "focus on what's important in their lives."

Of course, that presumes what's important will be communicated over Messenger, which has been built into the site since 2008 and was later spun off into a separate app for mobile devices. In July 2014, Facebook started requiring users to download the app in order to use the chat service and since then, Facebook said the number of people using it each month has grown to more than 700 million. Facebook counts nearly 1.5 billion people using the Messenger service at least once each month.