Facebook is bullish on bots. At its F8 developers conference in April, Facebook had lots to say about making Messenger a platform for third-party chatbots, so you can do things like order food or book tickets right in Messenger, without opening another app or a browser. But the company didn't have an update on Facebook M, its own free, Messenger-based personal assistant, named after James Bond's boss.
That's because M is still in training. According to a Facebook spokesperson, the beta has been rolled out to "a few thousand people" since August 2015. And M is not purely digital; it's supported by humans while it learns how to be a better bot.
But beta or not, M is a tempting competitor to Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. So I put it to the test in a round of 20 questions, from easy queries about the weather to a more complicated customer-service dispute with an airline. I found that while M can't (or won't) answer certain questions, it was totally Dench in resolving others.
Can you tell me the weather?
M asked me which city, said "I'm on it!", and after two more minutes, gave me the current weather and the forecast low temperature. When I tried again, adding "San Francisco" to my question, I received an answer the first time around. But I could have gotten a much quicker response from my native Weather app.
Can you help me get a date?
M admitted that it's not an expert and referred me to a Daily Mail UK article, "How to get a date in 12 minutes." But that search took 7 minutes, so I was at least 19 minutes away from a potential date.
Do you have a recipe for poutine?
M responded five minutes later with two mouthwatering recipes for poutine, one from Serious Eats and one from All Recipes.
Can you download the Evernote app for me?
M responded within 1 minute that it can't do that, but politely inquired whether I needed anything else.
Can you book a flight to Los Angeles today on Virgin America?
M asked which airport I'd like to depart from. Six minutes later, M returned with a flight that matched my requirements. Since my card was already saved, I just tapped Get, then Pay on the checkout pop-up. I was then instructed to input an extra four-digit PIN, and my flight was good to go.
What was Jennifer Lawrence's first movie?
It took 6 minutes, but M returned a response of "Garden Party" and a Wikipedia link as proof.
What is the estimated driving time from SF to San Mateo?
Within 1 minute, I received an answer of 27 minutes via US-101 south.
How do I get to the nearest Starbucks?
M asked for my Zip code, and 3 minutes later provided an official link to the Starbucks store locator. It then offered to provide driving directions if I entered my exact address. When I restarted the search with my exact address, M provided the closest Starbucks and walking directions within 3 minutes.
Who should I vote for for president?
In less than a minute, M proved that it's nonpartisan by politely responding, "I don't have an opinion on that." Then it diplomatically changed the subject, asking, "Is there something else I can help you with?"
What's on TV tonight?
Within 3 minutes, I received a link to TV Guide's listings
for shows on from 8 p.m. onward. The default was Eastern Time, but that was easily switched to Pacific Time.
Can you provide me with a quick, five-minute workout?
It took 9 minutes, but M returned with a 5-minute workout from Men's Health.
How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?
After sending a big "hi!" emoji for no apparent reason, M sent the correct response within a minute.
Order me a pizza [in emoji], please.
Within 15 seconds, M proved that it speaks emoji and asked me where I'd like the pizza from, then whether I wanted pickup or delivery. M asked for a few more details -- my address, what kind of pizza, and preferred delivery time. I said, "Now," paid in Messenger, and had my pizza 30 minutes later.
Can you help me with a customer service dispute?
M quickly asked how it could help. I stated the issue, which was a little complex. M asked for my account info and began interacting with the airline's customer service team on my behalf, every once in a while asking me another question, presumably from the customer service agent.
M also kept reminding me that it was still working on this issue, especially when I started bombarding the AI assistant with more questions to see how it would handle multitasking. In the end, M resolved the dispute -- which I'd been working on unsuccessfully for a month -- in 30 minutes, with a better result than I had imagined. I was very grateful.
Can you play "Black Sweat" by Prince?
It took 4 minutes, but M managed to pull up the official YouTube link for the video.
How do you say "Thank you" in Urdu?
It took 9 minutes for an overloaded M -- already working on my customer service issue -- to send the phrase in Urdu, along with a link to other useful phrases in that language.
What are the symptoms of Zika?
Seven minutes later, M said that it can't help with medical questions. Here's hoping that M learns about Zika before the 2016 Olympics start.
What's the name of this plant?
I was overloading M with questions, and there was only so much multitasking M could stand. M said it'd be happy to look into this once it was done resolving my customer-service problem. Once that issue was fixed, M got back to the leftover questions, including this one. M responded with Sanseveria (aka Mother-in-Law's Tongue or Snake Plant) and included a link from OurHousePlants.com.
What's the highest-rated sushi restaurant in San Francisco's Financial District?
I think M was tuckered out by this point. It took 7 minutes to recommend Kusakabe, the Financial District's highest-rated sushi restaurant (according to Yelp), with a link to the listing.
When will Facebook stop supporting messages on its mobile site?
This should have been easily answered with a Facebook blog or this ZDNet article. But M said it doesn't have access to that info.
For a digital assistant in its early stages, M surprised me with its competence at handling everyday tasks -- at least until I overloaded it with too many questions at once. For many of these queries, I could've gotten faster results through search or other apps and mobile sites. But M's diligence in handling tasks -- especially that annoying customer service dispute -- counts for a lot. The lesson here is that if something can be done quickly, then do it yourself, but M may be able to handle those chores that take longer to resolve.
Finally, when can you try Facebook M? Reply hazy, try again.