Facebook's first practical attempt to implement machine learning blew up badly. After suffering a 70 per cent failure rate, the Messenger Bot was redesigned to provide a potentially useful menu driven service.
This week Facebook introduced M, a Siri or Alexa-like AI assistant into Facebook Messenger, hoping it will fare better.
The M assistant will inject itself into private conversations with helpful suggestions: just like Microsoft's notorious Clippy the Paperclip did in Office.
Suggestions include: adding a calendar entry and reminders when users are scheduling an event, and more ambitiously, popping up a payment option when it detects users are talking about money, popping up a link to Uber when it thinks users are talking about going somewhere, and offering to facilitate payments. If it detects users in a group are arguing, it will pop up a poll.
The details are spelled out here.
Payments are of particular interest in the e-commerce context, as TenCent's WeChat has demonstrated that once trusted, IM platforms can scale to handle billions of small transactions. Although users outside China or India (where cash has been abolished in a spasm of utopian exuberance) may not need to pay each other quite so frequently electronically. In any case, we'll soon find out: TenCent wants to open a UK office.
So far Facebook's M is only available for US users of Facebook Messenger.
People have already enjoyed "machine learning" (sic) in the form of data detectors and spelling tools for many years. But whether machine learning can ever offer much more than that remains to be seen: there's a threshold above which users find intrusions very annoying – and not at all helpful.
(Last year Bloomberg compared the Silicon Valley mania to dose consumers with AI-powered "help" to the return of Clippy the Paperclip).
Silicon Valley seems determined to find this out the hard way.
In a brand survey earlier this week, teenagers ranked Facebook Messenger as almost as uncool as the Wall Street Journal, or Vice.