Alexa, why doesn’t Siri have a Facebook Sister?

Facebook is working on a voice assistant to rival Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri

When you think of consumer AI, you might think of Google, Amazon or Apple, certainly not Facebook.

Facebook is (finally) working on a voice assistant to rival the likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant.

They are especially working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that would supposedly work across their “family” of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus and future products. Facebook is to apps what Amazon is to the future of voice with Alexa, that have a significant lead over Google, Alibaba, Apple and others.

Facebook’s latest attempt at an AI voice assistant is an effort coming out of the company’s division that works on long-term tech projects and hardware, including the company’s virtual reality Oculus headsets. That’s a bit of a head scratcher.

However, Facebook is at least trying, this team is based out of Redmond, Washington, and has been spearheading the effort to build the new AI assistant.

This ain’t no Alexa or the smooth voice of Google Assitant here but rather more of a niche player it would seem. However, it remains unclear how exactly Facebook envisions people using the assistant, but it could potentially be used on the company’s Portal video chat smart speakers, the Oculus headsets or other future projects.

  • Portal Video Speaker
  • Occulus Headsets
  • Future products

The tech company has been working on this new initiative since early 2018. Facebook oddly doesn’t have a good track record with these things. You will remember Facebook shut down M early last year. Facebook’s Portal seems like an inferior product today in 2019 to Google or Amazon’s offerings.

According to research firm eMarketer, Amazon’s Echo is expected to capture 63.3 percent of smart speaker users in 2019, while Google Home will account for 31 percent. Here where I live in Canada, Google Assistant rules. It also just has a way more pleasant voice, a surprisingly important design consideration.

Facebook is continuing to build out new technology that promises to extend its reach and capabilities well beyond the main blue app with its simple scrollable News Feed, with latest effort along these lines being a Siri- and Alexa-like voice assistant the social network is trying to develop.

Sadly besides major acquisitions like Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook hasn’t innovated much compared to other Big Tech companies when it comes to consumer products or AI-consumer offerings. It’s difficult seeing what Facebook’s VR and AI strategy really is or how they might come together.

One way a Facebook AI could help is for creators who are making podcasts, as Spotify, Apple, Amazon and others are recognizing how consumer AI will open up the future of podcasting. Facebook already lags YouTube in terms of how creators create awesome video engagement.

Facebook doesn’t have an AI assistant of its own, however, despite longstanding rumors about its ambitions in the space. Facebook is realistically so far behind it would be difficult for it to catch up as it relies on legacy digital advertising through it’s considerable consumer app business model.

However as Ads give way to subscription based walled gardens, it’s not clear how Facebook’s future dominance is protected. Even the rise of streaming is taking time away consumers would otherwise be engaged within apps. With Disney, Apple, AT&T and others getting more into streaming, the next gen of TV could actually impact in-app engagement in the decade ahead, as well as the rise of Chinese apps like TikTok that are growing in Asia faster than Instagram is (maintaining its appeal).

The Facebook assistant faces stiff competition. Amazon and Google are far ahead in the smart speaker market with 67% and 30% shares in the U.S. in 2018, respectively, according to eMarketer. It’s not clear how Facebook fares in its ability to attract top AI engineers and talent to compete with the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple and others — as competition here is also intense.

The constant restructuring of Facebook’s Building 8 has been painful to watch. The Building 8 brand because of the launch of Portal lost its name, but Portal without an AI-assistant is basically a dead-end product in a smart home of Alexa devices. Facebook is perhaps not really understanding the future of the internet by being so late to the party.

Facebook’s Oculus Rift headsets have a prominent place in the VR ecosystem. Essentially yet another innovation by acquisition play, $3 Billion still sounds like a lot. Facebook’s advertising riches appear to have made an Apple like culture that’s afraid of real innovation. It’s a capture economy of the internet, it’s not innovation friendly, and this basically means most of the attempts of Facebook to innovate, are doomed to fail. They ain’t Amazon, there not as diversified as Microsoft and don’t have the talent of an Alphabet. So what is an digital Ad monopoly to do?

It’s sad story really and depictive of a Silicon Valley that plays a high-risk game but stumbles more than we even realize. In 2015, Facebook released an AI assistant for its Messenger app called M. It was supposed to help users with smart suggestions, but the project depended heavily on the help of humans and never gained traction. Facebook killed the project last year.

The company in November began selling its Portal video chat device, which lets users place video calls using Facebook Messenger. Unfortunately Facebook’s own employees were caught giving fake reviews for Portal. So I have trouble understanding what Facebook is trying to do sometimes, even as their median wage ($240,000) is incredibly high compared to most other BigTech companies. It’s become popular to wonder what Facebook really stands for in 2019, but as a futurist I also wonder about how it’s attempts to innovate are going.

Portal without an AI, is like an app without users.