Microsoft is bringing its Cortana virtual assistant to Skype, over a year after it first demonstrated some of the features at its Build developer conference in 2016. Whereas Cortana does act in some settings as a voice assistant like Siri and the Google Assistant, it’s worth remembering that Microsoft uses the Cortana name to refer to all the underlying AI capabilities too, and that’s what’s being implemented here. The integration is text- rather than voice-based and limited to messaging rather than voice or video interactions, and Cortana will offer up smart replies in messaging conversations and also offer useful information like movie and restaurant reviews. In some ways, this is a different spin on the Context Cards Snapchat added today, and very much along the same lines as Facebook’s current implementation of its M assistant within Messenger – offering context-based suggestions within existing human-to-human interactions. This is part of Microsoft’s broader push to get its AI into every corner of its products and services, but will hampered by the overall stagnation of Skype as a communication platform – though it clearly has some messaging users, it isn’t the default messaging platform for the vast majority of the population, at least in their personal lives.
Following Facebook’s public statement about Russian interference in the US elections last week, Twitter has now made a similar statement addressing both that specific issue and broader issues around political meddling, the use of bots on Twitter, and spam and other misuses of its platform. It appears Twitter found some of the same Russian-linked accounts which bought ads on Facebook in 2016 on its own platform, though they didn’t buy ads, while government-linked news outlet Russia Today bought over $200,000 worth of ads in 2016 including some that related directly to elections. Bots continue to be a big problem on Twitter, though one the company claims it’s getting better at managing. Twitter’s head of public policy spoke to the Senate committee investigating Russian influence this morning, and Twitter has promised to disclose more about these activities going forward as well as supporting efforts to increase regulation and transparency around election advertising, something Facebook has also said it supports. In the grand scheme of things, the actual activity discovered and reported by both platforms from an ad spending perspective continues to be very small, but that it’s happened at all in the overall context of an increasingly clear pattern of election manipulation by the Russian government and its surrogates is obviously concerning.
Update: Recode reports that at least one Senator, Democrat Mark Warner, says that Twitter’s presentation before his committee today was inadequate, lacking in detail, and seemed overly derivative based on Facebook’s investigation rather than its own work (the latter goes against the sense you get from reading Twitter’s own post on this, for what it’s worth).
Facebook Adds New Features to Messenger for Businesses (Jul 28, 2017)
Spotify Puts Collaborative Playlists in Facebook Messenger (Jun 21, 2017)
Spotify has launched collaborative playlist creation in Facebook Messenger by way of an “extension” (Facebook Messenger’s apps with its app). This will allow multiple friends to work together to populate a playlist even if some of them don’t have Spotify accounts of their own. That in turn turns Spotify into something of a music layer within Facebook rather than merely a proprietary service, and once again raises the question of whether Facebook would ever want to buy Spotify outright and integrate it more tightly into the Facebook experience. Facebook has so far entirely sat out the music market, doing the odd partnership here or there but never becoming a serious player, even though social features are often touted as one of Spotify’s strengths and an important feature for music services overall (though I have to add that a survey I ran a couple of years ago suggested social features are actually well down the list of the most important features users look for). At any rate, this looks like a neat addition to Spotify’s feature set, as well as a useful integration for Facebook Messenger, and a good showcase of what’s possible in Messenger now that the original bots vision has been replaced by something a bit more realistic and focused, with all the user interface elements needed to power something like this.
Instagram is apparently cracking down on some of the third party services which exist to artificially inflate follower counts by generating automated likes and comments on other accounts. Several have apparently shut down recently and blamed their closures on Instagram policy decisions, and it appears Instagram’s recent focus has been on these third party services rather than on user accounts that make use of them, which is both more efficient and better for PR – any attempt to target actual accounts risks false positives and a big backlash. But both Instagram and Twitter continue to suffer from a problem with not just what we might call artificial growth but accounts which are entirely automated, usually in order to push products off Instagram itself. Just in the past couple of weeks, my private account has had follow requests from half a dozen clearly pornographic accounts, and although Instagram has shut each one down relatively quickly, the identification of such accounts needs to happen more proactively.
Skype is one of those odd products – a fairly sizable communications property owned by a major tech company, and yet one which doesn’t make much money, isn’t growing much, and hasn’t really been focused on either messaging or social communication. It’s been clear, though, for some time that Microsoft would very much like Skype to be a big part of its consumer push and become more of a messaging- centric app, and the makeover it announced today seems like a big step in that direction. The new design, rolling out first on Android and later on other platforms, puts social sharing and messaging much more prominently in the app, but that’s no guarantee that people will actually use those features more or even see Skype as a natural place to do that kind of sharing. I only ever use Skype for work phone calls at this point, and others I’ve spoken to who use its messaging features use those almost exclusively for work communication too, so I’d be very curious to hear more from Microsoft about who is using messaging on Skype and what they’re using it for. My guess is that, for all the changes Microsoft is making here, it won’t be that much more successful than in the past in making Skype a mainstream consumer service or app for social communication and messaging. It doesn’t have the brand or the user base to make that objective work. It’s also adding in more bots, an effort that began with a bang at Build last year but has been quiet since, but again those will only be relevant inasmuch as people are spending a lot of time in Skype already and want and expect to find those interactions with brands and companies there. In the end, I don’t see anything here that makes me think Skype is going to become a radically different animal, even if it might look quite different after these changes. And that’s emblematic of Microsoft’s broader consumer challenges: it simply doesn’t have a broad-based consumer play at this point beyond productivity.
★ Amazon Scales Alexa Back-End by Opening Lex Voice and Text Service to All Developers (Apr 19, 2017)
So much of the focus of coverage of voice assistants and interfaces is on the dedicated consumer products which use them, and that’s natural: these are the most visible and measurable signs of a company’s success or failure in this space. And yet the scale of those dedicated voice product is still very small relative to smartphones, which carry their own voice assistants. And scale is vital if these products are to improve, because they require lots and lots of training to get better, and so the more users there are training them, the better they become. As such, I suspect the next phase of competition in this space is going to be about developer voice platforms at least as much as it is about first-party hardware and software, and we’re starting to see signs of this from the big companies in the space, including Google and Amazon. Today, Amazon announced that Lex, which is a back-end service that combines many of the technologies behind Alexa, is opening up to all developers. But critically, this isn’t just a voice platform – it supports text and voice processing, which means that many of the developers might use it in chat bots or other similar environments that have nothing to do with voice but still help train Amazon’s natural language processing tools. Google is doing similar things with its own voice processing technology, but it’s doubtful whether Apple will ever open its voice tools up in the same way. That’s not a huge deal, because it has massive scale in voice on smartphones alone, but it may make a bigger difference over time as these other platforms benefit not only from growing first party scale but increasing third party adoption and use too.
Also today at F8, Facebook overhauled its Messenger Platform, which launched last year, and went as far as to call it Messenger Platform 2.0. That kind of separation from the version launched a year ago is smart, because the first round was ill thought out, with the vision for bots both too expansive and not nearly detailed enough. In the year since, Facebook has made a lot of progress, and the version of bots it now offers to developers is much more compelling and better suited to the kinds of things it will be used for. Facebook is also getting better at serving small and medium sized businesses, which continue to make up an enormous chunk of the total base of businesses in many markets. That’s important because these businesses represent the biggest future opportunity for Facebook advertising, which is already well penetrated among larger enterprises. I’m still skeptical that bots have broad appeal beyond a few specific categories, but it’s starting to look like Facebook has cracked at least some of what it will take for bots to be successful in those categories where they do make sense. And it’s less religious about bots as full-fledged experiences now, too, which means that other flavors of automated, semi-automated, and human-driven interactions can live side by side more seamlessly, which is smart.
This change was reported by The Information a while back but has now been confirmed by Facebook: the M hybrid human-virtual assistant Facebook was testing last year has now been released in a much reduced and entirely AI-based role inside of Messenger. That makes a ton of sense and it sounds like Facebook has been successfully testing this feature for a while with positive user response. The only worry I’d have is that it could be seen as invasive or intrusive, both in the sense of invading users’ conversations uninvited and in the sense that it will appear to be “listening” to users’ conversations for key words and phrases that will trigger that intervention. Privacy isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing – everyone has their own preferences and tolerances for the tradeoffs online services can sometimes entail – so I’d expect to see a range of reactions from delight to outrage.
via The Verge
Facebook will launch group chatbots at F8 – TechCrunch (Mar 29, 2017)
This is yet another sign that Facebook feels its initial bot strategy from last year isn’t panning out (something I predicted at the time) and that it needs to try alternative approaches. It’s iterated fairly rapidly since then and added some functions to make interacting with bots easier, and it now sounds like it’s trying another different tack, allowing developers to integrate bots into group conversations. But those bots won’t be interactive AI-type creatures, but instead will provide updates on events or processes, such as sporting matches or food orders. Like earlier pivots, this seems more modest in its ambitions but also more likely to be successful. But Facebook’s direction here stands in marked contrast to Microsoft’s, which continues to work on AI-based chatbots.
Microsoft launches Ruuh, yet another AI chatbot – ZDNet (Mar 29, 2017)
It’s fascinating to watch Microsoft continue to experiment with AI chatbots after its first effort, Tay, went so badly wrong. But the company’s response to that embarrassment is a sign of the culture changes that have happened at Microsoft over the last few years, as this piece from USA Today a while back points out. Microsoft isn’t afraid of failing, picking itself up, and trying again, and that’s admirable in an area as competitively intense as AI. It’s also interesting to watch these chatbots be launched into markets outside the US with other languages and/or accents (its other recent effort in this space is based in China). There’s a long way to go until these chatbots become really useful, but Microsoft seems determined to keep trying until it gets it right, while another early proponent, Facebook, seems to be changing its strategy lately.
When Facebook and Microsoft first launched their respective chat bot strategies just under a year ago, I was skeptical – I argued that chat bots have very limited applicability and were ill-suited to the kind of broad app-replacement approach both companies were pushing. What we’ve seen since is a continued re-thinking of Facebook’s vision for bots, which has steadily pushed it in the direction of becoming very similar to interaction mechanisms we already have, whether in apps or mobile websites. As such, the unique value of a messenger-based interface is being eroded almost to zero, and the whole value proposition is being undermined. I don’t think this is the wrong way to go, necessarily – there will still be some interactions for which an app or site-like interface within messaging has some value – but this is further evidence that the original vision for chat bots in messaging apps was overblown. And of course that the idea that these bots would replace apps in a broad way was overblown too.
How Messenger and “M” Are Shifting Gears — The Information (Feb 22, 2017)
Facebook’s M assistant in its original conception was a virtual assistant a la Siri or Cortana which lived in Messenger, but one which was being trained by humans while it was available to a very limited number of users. Over time, it became clear that the process of handing off from humans to AI for the broad set of tasks M was supposed to be able to handle wasn’t going well, and it appears Facebooks somewhat went back to the drawing board on that. At the same time, the bot strategy within Messenger hasn’t gone well either, with limited developer and user adoption. Facebook now seems to have decided to combine these two failing projects into a new one which it presumably hopes will go better – M will pop up from time to time in Messenger conversions between friends to offer to complete certain tasks based on context. That’s probably a better, narrower use case for an AI assistant, but it also has serious potential to be creepy to users having what they will perceive to be a private conversation. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges with AI and bots – in order to be useful, they need to insert themselves into private conversations, which means they need to listen in on private conversations, much like Google’s advertising within Gmail has always been context based. In theory, only computers are eavesdropping, but that doesn’t stop people from objecting. I’m not convinced yet that this is the right answer either for Facebook’s M or bot strategies.
via The Information
This is a fascinating confluence of a couple of different things – mobile money transfers and Facebook’s bot strategy. Facebook already offers money transfers directly through Messenger, but only in the US, while it began pushing bots in Messenger early last year without much success. It appears TransferWise, a young but successful European money transfer provider, is leveraging the bot platform in Messenger to enable mobile money transfers between multiple additional countries. As far as I can tell, the bot side of things is incidental – this is really about leveraging the network that exists on Messenger for painless payments, and a bot happens to be the mechanism. In that sense, it’s very similar to the iMessage integrations for payment providers Apple offers in iOS 10 – this is mostly about adding a financial layer to existing interactions.