Facebook is working on an AI voice assistant similar to Alexa, Google Assistant – Ars Technica

AI —

There’s no indication that it will extend outside Facebook’s own hardware—yet.


Facebook's Portal+ smart display.
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Along with video chatting through Facebook Messenger, both Portal devices have built-in Amazon Alexa.

Facebook is working on developing an AI voice assistant similar in functionality to Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri, according to a report from CNBC and a later statement from a Facebook representative.

The CNBC report, which cites “several people familiar with the matter,” says the project has been ongoing since early 2018 in the company’s offices in Redmond, Washington. The endeavor is led by Ira Snyder, whose listed title on LinkedIn is “Director, AR/VR and Facebook Assistant at Facebook.” Facebook Assistant may be the name of the project. CNBC writes that Facebook has been reaching out to vendors in the smart-speaker supply chain, suggesting that Portal may only be the first of many smart devices the company makes.

When contacted for comment, Facebook sent a statement to Reuters, The Verge, and others, saying: “We are working to develop voice and AI assistant technologies that may work across our family of AR/VR products including Portal, Oculus, and future products.”

Portal is a messaging-focused smart display product that launched in November of last year. Currently, it includes Amazon Alexa instead of a Facebook-developed voice assistant. The product’s price was recently cut from $199 to $99 as part of a Mother’s Day promotion.

Facebook has previously experimented with AI integrations and bots within its Messenger service, including a chat-based virtual assistant. But this new project appears to be focused on interfaces for hardware devices like the Portal and the Oculus Rift VR headset.

The revelation that Facebook is working on an assistant like this has been cause for concern among privacy hawks, as devices like this may often be listening to the households in which they’ve been installed. The company has an abysmal track record when it comes to user privacy, such that CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced nascent plans to overhaul large parts of the business.

There’s no reason to assume at this point that Facebook will seek to compete with Alexa or Google Assistant by offering its own assistant to third parties for use in their devices. But the company’s poor privacy track record will be a concern should it pursue that path.

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