Facebook bought an AI startup that could turn its middling virtual assistant into a Siri killer

Mark ZuckerbergFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting big on AI.REUTERS/Shu Zhang

Facebook's virtual assistant, which goes by the name of M, hasn't quite delivered on the promise of a life-changing artificial intelligence product.

But Facebook isn't giving up. On Monday, the company announced its acquisition of a small, AI startup that will be folded into Facebook's messaging app.  Ozlo, which was founded four years ago and is based in Palo Alto, California, describes itself as "an index of knowledge about the real world."

In practice, that means a technology that lets users ask questions about everything from restaurants to movie schedules, which the AI-based system can quickly answer thanks to "a knowledge graph containing over 2 billion entities." 

A demo on an archived version of the Ozlo site (before Monday's acquisition was announced) shows a user typing in a query about the cheapest way to stream a particular TV show, followed by Ozlo's response, in natural language, proposing various viewing options. 

This kind of virtual assistant feature, similar to Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant, is something Facebook has sought to do with its M assistant. Facebook has integrated some automated M capabilities into the Messenger app. But a the full-fledged M virtual assistant is still only available to a very limited set of test users, and Facebook has acknowledged many of its capabilities are handled by a team of human "trainers" rather than true AI.

The financial terms of the deal for Ozlo were not disclosed. But Facebook has made no secret of how big of a priority AI is. During the company's quarterly earnings call last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the importance of artificial intelligence to Facebook's 10-year plan. 

"By joining a team that shares our values and our vision, we will be able to continue to work on building experiences powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. There's a lot more for us to explore ahead and we're excited to bring our technology to the Messenger community," Ozlo said in a message on its website announcing its acquisition by Facebook. 

Facebook said in an emailed statement the the acquisition would further its goal of building "compelling experiences within Messenger that are powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning." 

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