Software agents. This was the promise of the digital future that I found most intriguing in the 1990s. Software agents would find the information we needed and wanted. They would pay our bills, watch our money. They would keep our information organized and help us sort through it all. They would help us by making intelligent decisions about mundane things so that we don't have to.
It's 2015, and where are our software agents? Riding hoverboards and jetpacks, as far as I can tell. Wikipedia will tell you there are some software agents out there, but these are less than a faded memory of a pale shadow of what they will someday be able to do.
In fact, the closest thing we have to software agents for we, the consumers, are the three main virtual assistants: Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Now. That last one is the best of the bunch, too, though I have high hopes for Apple's upcoming Proactive feature/service/technology in iOS 9, but they too aren't true software agents.
On Tuesday, The Information reported that Facebook is working on some kind of virtual assistant of its own. It's being called "Moneypenny" (until Eon Productions sues the crap out of them), and it's supposedly going to be a feature in Facebook Messenger that allows users to ask questions of real people.
The sparse report said it will focus on "research and ordering products," and really, if you're asking real people, is it a virtual assistant? Seems more of a remote assistant to me, but that's a rabbit hole for another day. The real point here is that Facebook wants to do the virtual assistant thing just like the big boys and girls at Apple, Microsoft, and Google.
I'll admit that my first reaction was to roll my eyes. Facebook has always had delusions of being a bona fide platform. From its own phone that no one wanted to an app store that no one uses, lolfacebook. Moneypenny seems like little more than the next installment of Mark Zuckerburg's self-delusions.
But my dismissal of Facebook's Moneypenny didn't last, and that's because this is an area where we need as many players as possible competing and advancing the technologies involved. To be sure, Facebook is one of the last companies that I think can go toe to toe with the three tech giants I mentioned above on this kind of technology—Amazon and IBM are far more likely to be next major players in this area—but the important thing is that more companies get involved in this area.
If we want software to do more for us other than snoop into our lives and tell us who starred in that 80s sitcom, we need new competition for technologies like virtual assistants. We need more R&D dollars dedicated to this field. We need companies and universities alike focused on it so that the field as a whole can advance.
In that light: Welcome Facebook. Seriously. I hope that your participation in the field of virtual assistants propels us farther down the road to that day when software becomes so amazing, so useful, that we look back on today's wondrous age and ask ourselves how we lived in such primitive conditions.
Image made with help from Shutterstock.