Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has begun a limited trial rollout of its virtual assistant M.
The virtual assistant will be part of Facebook’s Messenger app for iOS and Android, and compete directly with Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana.
The launch of M is the social media giant’s first major foray into web search, a domain dominated by its Silicon Valley rival, Google.
Like its rivals, M can tell users what the weather will be like, and what the previous night’s baseball scores were and how high Mount Everest is, so on and so forth. M can also be used to schedule appointments and send reminders, something Siri, Google Now and Cortana can do too.
Unlike its rivals, M is not voice driven and inputs are made by typing and responses come via text. But M differs from its rivals in a few other ways.
“Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf,” said David Marcus, the ex-PayPal CEO who is now in charge of Facebook messaging apps.
“It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more.”
Such customer service tasks aren’t something Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon’s assistants offer.
M can do this because it doesn’t rely solely on artificial intelligence to answer questions, Marcus said. When M is stumped, it turns to actual, old-school customer service representatives, called M Trainers, to answer questions.
The feature isn’t built into an OS – like Siri and iOS, Google Now and Android, or Cortana and Windows 10. Instead, it features only in Facebook’s messaging app.
M also doesn’t offer predictive search results like its rivals. Google Now and Cortana give users information they frequently search for before any question is asked; in iOS 9, Siri is expected to do some similar things.
Facebook says M rolled out to a few hundred people in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday.