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Facebook’s assistant could be different from the competition in one important way

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Siri, Alexa, Cortana, by now you’ve probably noticed that nearly all digital assistants are portrayed as female. Even Google’s more gender neutral Assistant has a female voice by default.

Interestingly, Facebook may be the tech company to buck this trend. 

CNBC reported this week that Facebook’s planned smart speaker, which was originally slated to launch this week at F8, will include a version of the company’s M digital assistant feature. And, according to the report, we may now know what “M” is short for: Marvin. 

A quick recap: M is Facebook’s assistant feature that was first launched in 2015 as a kind of human and AI hybrid. The goal at the time was to use a combination of artificial intelligence and humans to create an assistant that could help you do everything from order food to buy plane tickets.

However, the feature was eventually scaled back and a more limited version was integrated into Messenger. 

What’s interesting about CNBC’s latest report, though, is not that M could make its way to Facebook’s long-rumored smart speaker, but that the company is going against the trend of giving digital assistants female names and personas. 

Though most companies now allow you to change the default voice to male, the fact remains that pretty much every mainstream digital assistant has a female voice, even though many have pointed out that this plays into troubling gender stereotypes.

So it’s notable, then, that Facebook may be considering a male name. (CNBC notes Marvin is still only a “potential” name.)

But the name Marvin, random though it may seem, makes sense for other reasons, too. As I’ve noted before, a lot of factors go into naming an assistant.

Digital assistant names need to be short and easy to say, but also unique enough that the name stands out from other speech. The name can’t be too common either, otherwise things will get confusing pretty quick (just ask anyone named Alexa). 

The hard consonant sound in the middle of Alexa makes the wake word easy to pick up, even if you mumble or speak with an accent, and “Marvin” might be similarly effective. 

It’s also short, relatively easy to remember, and not a particularly common name, making it even more attractive. According to U.S. census data, it ranked No. 544 on the list of most popular male baby names in 2016, the most recent year from which data is available.

There’s also the nostalgia element for Douglas Adams fans. Facebook naming its assistant after Marvin, the paranoid android with a brain as big as a planet from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, could earn it some nerd cred.

Again, this is all just speculation — the final name could end up being something completely different. Facebook could even end up just sticking with the name M. 

But, if it’s looking at male names for a digital assistant, Marvin would certainly fit the bill. 

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