What is Facebook M?

Facebook is taking on Siri and Cortana, but it's new digital assistant isn't just another machine with a female voice. In fact, it doesn't have a voice at all. Facebook M is a service within the Facebook Messenger app that combines artificial intelligence and real-human assistance to help you do things like book travel plans, make online purchases and suggest nearby restaurants.

M will even wait on hold for the cable company so you don't have to.

We first heard about M when it was referred to as Facebook Moneypenny back in July 2014. Currently, Facebook M has launched in the Bay Area to a few hundred people, but as Facebook's vice president of messaging products David Marcus explained in a post about the service, it's the first step into making M an at-scale service.

It works like this: when you open the Facebook Messenger app, you can tap the M logo at the bottom of the screen to open up a chat window with M. In the same way you would type a message to a friend on Messenger, you can type a message or a question to M. The service then uses both software and live people to ask follow-up questions and provide a solution for you.

MORE: Siri vs. Cortana vs. Google Now

According to Wired, those people have been dubbed by Facebook as "M trainers." Facebook has hired a number of these individuals, most with customer service backgrounds, to work with M's software to help you get things done. For example, Facebook claims you'll be able to ask M to set up your home's Internet service, and it will call your cable provider and have one of the M trainers go through the annoying and time-consuming process of being on hold.

Having human hands in M is one of the biggest differences between Facebook's assistant and the leading competitors, Cortana, Google Now and Siri. All of the digital assistants, including M, learn about you the more you use it, but Facebook says M currently does not use any of the information the company already has from your Facebook account. Rather, it only takes information from the previous conversations you've had with M.

The other main difference between M and its competitors is that M can complete tasks that go beyond making a dinner reservation. As Wired describes, you could ask M to plan a birthday dinner, and while M's software can make book the restaurant and the Uber ride over, someone might surprise your guest of honor with celebratory cupcakes at the end of the evening. That's a feature no software could do alone, which is where M trainers show their unique value.

As Facebook M grows, the company will have to invest in more M trainers to meet demand, which will likely get expensive. The company told Wired that it sees revenue potential from M once it figures out how people use the service most. For instance, if many are using M to deal with their cable companies, it could be worth it for the company partner with Facebook to have a presence within Messenger directly.

As Facebook M continues to roll out across the country, we'll have to see whether the benefits of M's AI-human mix prove beneficial enough for users to choose it as their personal assistant.

Valentina Palladino

Valentina is Commerce Editor at Engadget and has covered consumer electronics for a number of publications including Tom's Guide, Wired, Laptop Mag and Ars Technica, with a particular focus on wearables, PCs and other mobile tech.