Facebook launches voice assistant to fight Siri/Alexa


Facebook is cooking up a new digital assistant to compete with Alexa, Siri, and Google. The tech giant’s Redmond, WA team has been working on the project since last year and is currently working on building the vendor relationships needed to bring the project to life.

This latest digital assistant is FB’s second foray into the space — remember 2015’s M? The company also started selling Portal, its video chat device, which uses Alexa to handle more complicated tasks.

What do we know about Facebook’s new AI?

Facebook killed off M last year. It never really took off, and according to The Verge, the assistant needed a lot of assistance from its users. The company is switching things up this time around. Where M was all about messaging, Facebook says the new project is more about “hands-free interaction” through voice, of course, but potentially gesture control.

A Facebook spokesperson told Reuters that the company is developing “voice and AI assistant technologies” designed to work with Oculus, Portal, and future products.

The AI tech will go into the line of Portal displays launched late last year, replacing Alexa as the device’s voice-activated digital assistant. What they haven’t mentioned, however, is how people can use the tool. It might turn the Portal into an actual competitor for Google Home and Amazon Echo.

Can it save the Portal?

Here’s the thing; Facebook continues to make headlines for privacy violations.

So, when the Facebook Portal launched, the irony of a Facebook-powered video chat camera certainly wasn’t lost on reviewers.

The Portal and Portal+ are priced outside of the Google Home and Amazon Echo baseline. Now, Facebook’s smart speaker/screen can stream video, music, and learn Alexa skills, and it’s a pretty reliable home assistant tool.

But entry-level Portals are half-off right now — through May 12, you can get one for $99.

TechCrunch chalks a lot of the Portal’s problems to poor timing. Amid these egregious privacy violations, why launch a device with a video camera and microphone?

The biggest problem, though, might be the assistant. You can say, “hey Portal” and set up a call, but it doesn’t help with anything else. Instead, it passes the buck to Alexa.

Back to the timing issue — maybe they should have waited to launch Portal when they had a built-in assistant of their own.

Portal privacy—is it an issue?

As though they read our minds, Facebook has created a friendly privacy policy page that details how, exactly, the Portal is absolutely NOT spying on you. They swear.

It’s worth noting that Facebook isn’t the only company that oversteps when it comes to privacy concerns. Consider all of the reported Alexa incidents, including this Bloomberg report that Amazon employs actual humans to listen to users’ questions.

Alexa’s software is designed to record bits of audio, listening for the wake word. The idea is, Alexa reviewers transcribe user commands, comparing how Alexa’s responses in the wild compare with her automated transcript — the goal here is to find out if Alexa delivers an adequate response.

Facebook’s problem is, perhaps, the tone deafness that comes through as they navigate this fake news, data breach landscape. They keep saying, “trust us” and talk about positive interactions and so on, but keep messing up.

Portal, does collect data about your calls — frequency, call length, the apps you use, and so on. But, they don’t record the contents of the call.

Wrapping up

In the end, the voice assistant stands to be a formidable competitor for Siri and Alexa — if the company can regain at least some of the public’s trust.

If they can pull that off, a digital assistant might bring more value to the Portal. And, it’s a step toward a new, AI-powered Facebook, as the company adds more hardware devices to the mix.

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