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Here’s why Facebook Messenger isn’t building a voice-controlled assistant like Alexa or Siri

Messenger’s assistant, M, is only text-based for now.

TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016 - Day 2
Head of Product for Messenger at Facebook Stan Chudnovsky
Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Facebook Messenger is building an AI-powered personal assistant, called M, to help its users complete all kinds of tasks, like ordering an Uber or sending money to a friend.

Unlike other AI assistants, though, M is text-based only. It won’t reply to voice commands like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri, and the company isn’t planning to give users voice-control over M any time soon.

Why, exactly, is Messenger ignoring a technology push that the rest of the tech industry seems hell-bent on perfecting?

We asked Messenger’s product boss Stan Chudnovsky why Facebook M wasn’t built to respond to user voice commands at the Collision Conference in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Chudnovsky said that voice-controlled AI assistants have to complete three steps in order to carry out any task:

  1. Recognize someone is making a specific request (versus simply having a conversation).
  2. Translate that request into text that the AI can understand.
  3. Fulfill the request.

Even if an AI assistant can complete each of those individual tasks with a 90 percent success rate, that’s still not great, Chudnovsky said. “You are still in the world of multiplying probabilities, which means that the outcome of that exercise is actually lower than you’d like it to be.” In the 90 percent scenario described, the AI assistant would successfully complete all three steps just 73 percent of the time.

Instead, Chudnovsky said, Facebook is trying to perfect the final two steps in this process — identifying text and carrying out the task.

“Once we nail those things then we can go into voice,” he added. “But until we nail that we don’t want to go into a world where we teach people what we cannot do well. Otherwise we’re going to be in the world where people very quickly realize certain things that we don’t do well yet and then they may not give us another try.”

Facebook is not usually a company to roll things out slowly. After all, it was Mark Zuckerberg who gave Silicon Valley the “move fast and break things” mantra.

But Messenger has been very slow in rolling out M. The assistant was first announced almost two years ago but is still in beta and primarily powered by humans, not actual machines. The company only recently started adding AI-powered responses to Messenger for all of it users.

But it sounds like Messenger is open to the idea of a voice-controlled assistant at some point. “Voice eventually?” we asked Chudnovsky.

“Voice eventually,” he replied.

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