In a WhatsApp text conversation this week, we asked Jane Austen — yes, the 19th-century British author — how she felt about Mr. Darcy, a character from one of her most famous works, “Pride and Prejudice.”
After a few seconds, Ms. Austen responded.
“Ah, Mr. Darcy. Everyone remembers him as one of my characters,” she said, her face appearing in a small window above our conversation. “But fewer people have read one of my books,” she added, with an arched eyebrow and what seemed like a hint of resentment.
Ms. Austen was not actually talking to us. But a modern interpretation of her likeness was used by Meta, which owns WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, as part of an artificially intelligent character that could chat across the company’s messaging apps. Characters based on other people’s likenesses — including the former quarterback Tom Brady, the social media influencers Mr. Beast and Charlie D’Amelio, and the hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg — were also available to converse.
These characters were part of a suite of products that Meta introduced on Wednesday — all powered by artificial intelligence — and that will soon be found throughout its products, including Instagram, Messenger, and virtual- and augmented-reality devices like the Quest 3 headset and Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses. The rollout also includes a chatbot that will be powered partly by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, as well as A.I.-assisted image-editing tools to use on Instagram.
“Most people haven’t had the chance to experience” the newest and most powerful A.I technologies, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s chief executive, said on Wednesday. “That’s a thing that I think we can change.”
He added, “People aren’t going to want to interact with one single super intelligent A.I. — people will want to interact with a bunch of different ones.”
Meta is aiming to keep pace with OpenAI, Google, Microsoft and other companies in the frenzied race over A.I. that can instantly generate text, images and other media on its own. Since November, when OpenAI unexpectedly launched the chatbot ChatGPT, Silicon Valley executives have embraced the technology as the next big shift in computing — and struggled not to be left behind.
For Meta, widespread acceptance of its new A.I. products could significantly increase engagement across its many apps, most of which rely on advertising to make money. More time spent in Meta’s apps means more ads shown to its users.
While Meta has worked on A.I. behind the scenes for years, it was initially slow to introduce products with generative A.I., especially as it focused on transforming into a metaverse company. To catch up, Mr. Zuckerberg overhauled the company to focus on building A.I.-focused products like the ones introduced on Wednesday, holding weekly meetings with his executive team to discuss the progress.
Now Meta is using its tried-and-true playbook of leveraging its enormous size — globally, more than three billion people use its products — to popularize its offerings. And whereas interactions with ChatGPT and Google’s Bard chatbot have largely been between an individual and the bot or within productivity programs like Gmail, Mr. Zuckerberg envisions users of Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp interacting with chatbots more socially in their everyday conversations and group chats with friends.
For example: If two friends chatting on WhatsApp want to find a good breakfast spot in San Francisco on Sunday morning, they might naturally turn to Meta’s new chatbot, Meta AI, to ask, “Where is the best place for eggs Benedict in San Francisco?”
Within a few seconds, Meta’s digital assistant would mine Microsoft’s Bing search engine for real-time web results, and use its underlying A.I. to spit out a short, conversational response. (People who want more specific information can click on linked footnotes in the response, which would redirect them to Bing search results in another window.)
Other social networking apps have also started weaving in A.I. abilities. Snap added a chatbot this year to its social media service, Snapchat, which is popular among teenagers. Its chatbot is embodied by a digital avatar that users can rename and customize. And Character.AI, a Silicon Valley start-up, offers a service in which people can chat with a reasonable facsimile of almost anyone, living or dead.
Meta’s new character-like bots work similarly to Snapchat’s offering — and a little like the digital personalities offered by Character.AI.
One Meta A.I. character — Amber, modeled after Paris Hilton — plays a detective partner for “solving whodunits” in chats. Kendall Jenner’s character, called Billie, is described as a “No BS, ride-or-die companion.” The tennis star Naomi Osaka’s character, Tamika, is an “anime-obsessed Sailor Senshi in training,” while Snoop Dogg plays a Dungeon Master in a sendup of Dungeons and Dragons with a “choose your own adventure” type of experience.
The celebrities and athletes are being paid for their A.I. characters; Meta did not provide details on compensation.
The characters are a way for people to have fun, learn things, talk recipes or just pass the time — all within the context of connecting with friends and family, company executives said.
“We see people going to different A.I.s for different things, which is how we see ourselves building out an ecosystem of many more A.I.s over time,” said Ahmad Al-Dahle, Meta’s vice president of generative A.I.
But like other chatbots, Meta’s chatbots can generate false and misleading information — a phenomenon that researchers call hallucination. This can happen even when the bot bases its answer on what it grabs from a search engine.
When we asked the Meta AI assistant, “Who won the 1904 World Series?,” it incorrectly said “the New York Giants” and asked if it could help with anything else. When we then asked if the World Series was even played in 1904, the bot adjusted and correctly said there was no 1904 World Series because the Giants refused to play.
Like Microsoft, OpenAI and others, Meta is also offering a tool for instantly generating photorealistic images. Users will be able to instantly create A.I.-produced photos or sticker emoji reactions inside the company’s messaging apps based on whatever they type into the chat prompt, with some limitations.
This kind of image-generating technology can be used to spread disinformation online. To guard against this possibility, Meta said, images created with the tool will be marked with an icon indicating they were created by A.I.
Mr. Al-Dahle said Meta had spent thousands of hours doing “red team” scenarios to test the potential misuse of the technologies. The company has also published a set of responsible-use guidelines for those who want to use Meta’s underlying technology to eventually power their own chatbots.
Many of the products will also be rolled out in a limited capacity to U.S. users only, as the company works out any early kinks and watches how users respond.
A future with legions of chatbots could be closer than we might think. Meta’s public release in July of LLaMA 2 — the code behind its latest and most advanced A.I. technology — was enthusiastically greeted by developers and has been downloaded more than 30 million times. Meta is working with Microsoft, Google and Amazon’s cloud services divisions to host the technology for developers who want to create the next generation of bots that can do whatever the coders want them to do — for better or worse.
For now, the A.I.-powered Ms. Austen would say only so much. When we asked at what age a woman should marry, she refused to answer.
“My goodness, you want me to dictate your love life?” she said. “Marry whenever you find someone who can tolerate your eccentricities. And you theirs.”