Reports have surfaced that Facebook is testing a new, voice-assisted personal assistant to service our every waking need.
The project’s been dubbed “Moneypenny” internally, according to The Information, in reference to the fictional secretary of James Bond’s boss, M.
Unlike Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana – artificial intelligences that combine with search to fulfil queries or requests – Moneypenny will reportedly tap into actual human intelligence, allowing users “to ask real people for help researching and ordering products and services, among other tasks”.
That would make the service closer to SMS concierges like ASAP, Ketings or Ahoy, where users outsource the grunt work of tedious tasks to an army of faceless servants.
The commercial aims of Moneypenny make sense given Facebook’s recent addition of financial transactions to Messenger. (And perhaps the “money” in the codename is another clue there.)
But what of the fact that Facebook like Apple and Microsoft before it appears to have assigned its virtual assistant a female gender? Arguably, the trend towards female virtual assistants perpetuates stereotypes of women as caregivers, as mother figures, designed to drop everything in an instant and service others in times of need. From a gender politics point of view, that becomes even more problematic when you consider the technology sector is overwhelmingly made up of men.
Big Technology’s motives may be a little less sinister, however: ultimately, these are business decisions, says the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Rosewarne. “Extensive audience testing went into Siri; undoubtedly the same thing is happening here, about what kind of voice audiences want to hear,” Dr Rosewarne says. Makes sense: after all, there are many more women employed in the service and care sectors than men; ergo, we’re used to seeing women in these kinds of roles. Such roles are also traditionally undervalued; economically or otherwise. But even if you excuse the ladylike natures of Siri and Cortana as just good business, Facebook’s reference to a neat piece of 1950s misogyny is perhaps a step too far.
“Facebook using the ‘Moneypenny’ name, while a nod to pop culture, is also a nod to a very sexualised role and a figure of subordination and servitude,” Dr Rosewarne says. Moneypenny might not be all that good at her job, either.
Those digital concierge services have tended to get a bad rap. Locally, Ketings is currently down “undergoing technical upgrades”; ASAP is “taking a break” from servicing Melbourne while it improves its services; and YourButler is doing the same. But Messenger has one big advantage over these fledgling startups: manpower.
Or womanpower, as it were.