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Facebook's Cyborg Virtual Assistant Is Learning From Its Trainers

By Technology Review

September 21, 2015

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Several hundred users of Facebook's mobile messaging app late last month were given access to M, the social network's new artificial intelligence-based virtual assistant.

M is slightly different and more ambitious than Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana. M's artificial intelligence (AI) is augmented by several dozen human "trainers" who help field queries and requests that are beyond the AI.

However, Alex Lebrun, who leads the team working on M, says the trainers are doing more than picking up the slack of M's AI: they are teaching the virtual assistant how to handle requests it initially cannot comprehend. Lebrun says the team chose this approach as a means of harnessing machine learning in a virtual assistant. Because no one has the sort of dataset that would be necessary to train a machine-learning algorithm to be a better virtual assistant, they decided to create such a dataset by employing the trainers. Facebook's researchers say this allows M to comply with complex requests such as sending a user an alert every morning if rain is forecast, or independently planning a weekend away in a different city.

Lebrun expects his team will be able to scale up M so it can be generally available, but he says it will still require trainers for quite some time.

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