Facebook builds natural language processing into Messenger


Facebook today launched Messenger Platform 2.1 with new features to give developers and brands more ways to reach potential customers, like built-in natural language processing, a payments SDK, and a global beta that makes it easier to switch between automated bots and the humans behind 70 million businesses on Facebook.

Natural language processing (NLP) will be provided by Wit.ai. The company acquired by Facebook in 2015 has always made NLP available to developers, but in 2.1 it comes as a built-in feature to detect the use of common phrases like “hello,” “bye,” “thanks,” date & time, location, amount of money, phone number, and email. Once one of these seven kinds of messages are detected, the bot can then carry out an automated response. Built-in NLP introduced today is “the first step in bringing NLP capabilities to all developers, enabling brands to scale their experiences on Messenger,” Facebook wrote in a blog post today.

“We have more and more natural language interactions inside of messenger and we want to help third party developers, existing enterprise and customer support, and service centers automate a lot of those interactions, and a big, big requirement to automation is understanding what people are asking,” Messenger head David Marcus told a small gathering of reporters and business partners at Facebook headquarters Wednesday. “So what we’re doing right now is we have built-in NLP inside of the Send/Receive API that developers here are using, which means that you will get from the API the intent extraction that you need to automate responses, so it’s a big, big deal. It’s a little geeky, but it actually will enable automation at scale.”

Automation at scale, Marcus continued, will lead to more interactions at scale on the Messenger Platform and more brands coming to the platform.

On Wednesday when second quarter earnings were announced, Facebook heard a lot of questions from analysts about Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp’s ability to produce revenue. Facebook launched its global beta for advertisements on Messenger’s home page earlier this month, and News Feed ads for bots were introduced in November.

Also with Messenger Platform 2.1, a new software development kit launches today to enable payments in Messenger webview. Like the payments beta that launched last fall, at launch the new SDK will only be available in the United States.

A handover protocol that can transfer a conversation from an automated bot to a human is available as an open beta worldwide. Handovers allow a bot to handle things like customer onboarding, audience segmentation, or answering mundane FAQs, then bring a human in later in the process or when a customer gets stuck.

With Messenger Platform 2.1, Facebook page moderators can now choose what sort of button visitors see when they visit their website. Instead of just the basic Message button, a page devoted to news or information can use the Get Updates button or an ecommerce vendor can choose Shop Now. Other buttons include Get Support, Play Now, and Get Started.

The most recent update to Messenger came this spring at the annual developer conference F8. Bot discovery was the emphasis for Messenger Platform 2.0, with features like the Discover Tab to allow Messenger staff to pick featured bots; chat extensions to make Messenger bots available in group chats; and M Suggestions to suggest bots based on the words used in a Messenger conversation.

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Khari Johnson

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