NEWS
08/27/2015 10:52 EDT | Updated 08/27/2016 01:12 EDT

Facebook M unveiled: Virtual assistant powered by AI – and humans

Facebook has unveiled a new service that can suggest gifts and restaurants at your request  - and then buy stuff and make reservations on your behalf.

Facebook M is a personal digital assistant – like Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana – that will become part of Facebook's standalone Messenger app.

David Marcus, the company's head of messaging products, announced in a Facebook post Wednesday that the company was just starting to test M.

"Unlike other AI-based services in the market, M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more," Marcus wrote.

That's partly because, unlike other digital personal assistants, M isn't just artificial intelligence – it's "trained and supervised by people."

Marcus told the technology magazine Wired that the human trainers have customer service backgrounds.

" They make the trickier judgment calls, and perform other tasks that software can't," Wired's Jessi Hempel reported.

In an example posted by Marcus on Facebook, a user types into M, "My friends are having a baby! Can you help me find a good gift? They already have a bunch of clothes and toys."

M responds, "What about shoes?" and posts an image of baby shoes, along with the price, the address of the website that sells them and a "Get" button.

It doesn't appear that the user clicked on the button. Instead, he or she responds "Shoes are perfect!"

The a single time stamp at the top of the conversation and the time on the phone suggest that the request was fulfilled more or less instantaneously.

But the example gives no indication of whether M actually bought the shoes or how payment worked.

M suggests it can also help order flowers, recommend the best hikes in the Bay Area or tell you whether there is a dog-friendly beach nearby, among other tasks.

The service has already been tested internally by Facebook employees.

Marcus told Wired that one of the most popular requests by internal testers was for M to wait on hold on their behalf while calling telecommunications or cable companies.

Initially, M will be tested by a few hundred users in the Bay Area around San Francisco. But Marcus the free service will eventually be available to all Messenger users.