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Wanted: A world where virtual assistants help (without being asked)

Mike Elgan | Aug. 21, 2017
Only two virtual assistants – those from Google and Facebook – can eavesdrop on your conversations and chime in with helpful suggestions. We need a lot more of that, even in the office.

The Google Assistant, which is a virtual assistant platform, is also available via Allo. You can type commands and queries just as you would speak them to a Google Home device. The Home also runs Google Assistant, as does Google's own Pixel line of Android smartphones. The web version of Allo represents the first availability of Google Assistant on the web. Unfortunately, the web version of Assistant does not support third-party app integration.

The single most interesting aspect of Google Assistant in Allo (and the new desktop browser version) is that Assistant "pays attention" to chat conversations, and occasionally suggests things. For example, if you start talking about pizza, it might suggest a nearby pizza joint.

Placing "suggestion" A.I. into a typed chat context simultaneously helps Google develop the technology to make it better, but also eases privacy concerns. Typed chats feel more private and formal than, say, something that listens to actual conversations and makes suggestions based on what it hears.

Google isn't the only company offering "suggestion" A.I.


Facebook's 'suggestion' A.I.

Facebook Messenger has a newish feature called M Suggestions.

Most news reports and even Facebook announcements confuse "M," which is an unreleased A.I. virtual assistant experiment project, with "M Suggestions," which is a feature of Facebook Messenger that has been released in most English- and Spanish-speaking countries.

To clarify, M is more of an umbrella project for Facebook to figure out how A.I. could enhance or augment social interaction at massive scale.

If you visit the help page for M and click on the "How can I use M" link, it will probably tell you "M isn't currently available in your area. When it is, you'll be notified in the Messenger app." Only a tiny number of select users participate in the M experiment. Facebook M is not generally available in any country.

Everyone who uses Facebook Messenger in the U.S., UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Spain and Mexico does not automatically get access to M, but they do get access to M Suggestions.

Unlike the M experiment, M Suggestions is a "shipping" feature of Facebook Messenger, released in those countries and in two languages - English and Spanish.

M Suggestions can urge you to save Messenger conversations or remind you to wish somebody a "Happy Birthday" when it's their birthday.

Those preemptive suggestions are based on data. Others are based on the conversation you're having. For example, if you say, "Want to call me?," M Suggestions will offer to place the call. M Suggestions can also offer to send money, share locations, coordinate meetings, conduct a poll or call a Lyft or Uber - all based on the conversation.


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