Facebook buys chatbot start-up to support digital payments

Ahead of the planned 2020 launch of its Libra digital currency, Facebook has acquired an Israeli start-up which builds AI-driven chatbots.

In June, Facebook confirmed that it was making plans to launch its own blockchain-based digital currency, Libra. The Libra Association – which is made up of Facebook’s subsidiary (Calibra) and 27 other organisations, including PayPal, Stripe and Mastercard – plans for Libra to be backed by a selection of other currencies in order to minimise volatility.

Facebook plans for the currency to be sent and received via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and a standalone ‘Calibra’ wallet app.

Now, Israeli B2B newspaper The Marker has reported that Facebook has acquired a Tel Aviv-based start-up, Servicefriend, to support the rollout of the currency. Servicefriend creates AI-based chatbots for businesses. It describes its breakthrough as ‘Hybrid Bot Architecture’, which offers the scalability of a bot with human levels of comprehension and empathy to allow for more natural interactions with customers.

It has previously worked with Facebook to build chatbot assistants for companies to deploy via Facebook Messenger. Its positively received bots are used in retail, banking, consumer electronics, hospitality and other industries; Globe Telecom, for example, states that introducing a Servicefriend bot for Facebook Messenger has increased productivity by 3.5 times and halved hotline calls.

“We are thrilled to share that Servicefriend is now moving to the next chapter of our exciting journey,” a notice on its website said, while not explicitly citing Facebook as its buyer. “Over the past four years, we managed to standout [sic] and build a great platform for brands to deliver excellent experiences at scale over WhatsApp and Messenger. Our mission to transform the way business interact [sic] with people and to let people communicate with businesses as they do with their friends has always been our raison d’être.”

According to a TechCrunch report, the acquisition will help Facebook build customer-friendly financial services; Calibra’s website promises that it will provide customer support around the clock via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

A Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch that: “We acquire smaller tech companies from time to time. We don’t always discuss our plans.”

Facebook is facing considerable international scrutiny over its plans to roll out Libra. The US Home Committee on Financial Services has warned that Facebook must halt its development of the currency, citing concerns raised about Facebook’s record on privacy and lack of regulation of digital currencies. Similar reservations have been raised by finance ministers, regulators and other senior financial leaders in France, the UK, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

Facebook has agreed that Libra will not be launched until all regulatory concerns have been settled.

Today, it was reported that each Libra coin would be backed 50 per cent by the US dollar and US bonds; 18 per cent by the euro and euro-dominated bonds; 14 per cent by the Japanese yen and Japanese bonds; 11 per cent by the British GBP pound and seven per cent by the Singapore dollar.

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