I’m not sure exactly why I hate scheduling meetings as much as I do, but they are, and have always been, the bane of my work existence. Scheduling meetings is essential to any business, but between ping-pong emails and the many delays that often ensue, the act of scheduling itself can be extremely frustrating and sometimes seem utterly pointless.
Enter: Amy Ingram and her brother Andrew from a New York-based startup called x.ai. Designed to relieve both the stress and pain of meeting scheduling, they are personal assistants powered by artificial intelligence. Their initials are of course a play on the term, “Artificial Intelligence” (AI), while N-Gram, a homophone of their surname, is a “technique” used in computational linguistics.
So far X.ai has raised $11.3 million in venture capital, which the company has used to scale its business pre-launch. For now, their product remains in closed beta, with what has been described as a “huge volume” of users already utilizing the service.
Upon full release (some time during 2016) it will include a free version for individuals who schedule less than about 10 meetings per month, while the premium version will enable more meetings and allow users to customize their personal assistants’ names and email signatures. Soon after coming out of beta, x.ai also plans to release an enterprise edition of the service, for companies that wish to incorporate the technology into their organizations at large.
Most users will be happy to know that the most difficult part of getting started with Amy or Andrew will be deciding whom to “hire”. According to x.ai, “We are your AI powered personal assistants for scheduling meetings…we do all the tedious email ping pong that comes along with scheduling a meeting. No sign-in, no password, no download, all you do is: Cc: [email protected] or [email protected].”
There’s no app. Nothing to download. It really is as easy as remembering to cc Amy (or Andrew). That said, as with an interaction with a human assistant, the more clearly and unambiguously one expresses oneself, the less errors there will be. Like her human equivalents, Amy can’t read minds and needs to be brought up to speed on preferences (e.g., no meetings before 7am or after 7pm) as well as buffer times (e.g., a 15 minute break between calls, enough time to travel to physical meetings.)
In the Intelligent Assistance Landscape created by VentureBeat, x.ai falls into the “Intelligent Employee Assistant” space, described as, “Automated agents that support increased employee productivity by facilitating communications, scheduling, search and discovery, project management, product lifecycle management and collaboration.”
There is AI and then, there is AI. According to Dennis R. Mortensen, the Founder and CEO of x.ai, Amy and Andrew Ingram would be what he calls ‘Vertical AI,’ “These agents promise no more and no less than to perform one job for you and to do it so well, you might even mistake them for a human.”
Dennis continues, “You can easily imagine a slew of Vertical AIs—travel agents that book plane and hotel tickets (no more suffering through screens on Kayak or Expedia), bookkeeper agents that reconcile your accounts, healthcare agents that keep your medical files up to date and inform your doctors when something changes. You can imagine, in other words, the emergence of a marketplace of Vertical AIs, in which you can access individual agents for many tedious jobs that were once the province of actual people but have long since devolved to me and you.”
He adds, “In this scenario, Horizontal AI like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa become immensely useful—enablers, really. Eventually, they will be able to summon these single-minded Vertical AIs at will. When you ask Siri to schedule a meeting, she’ll simply ping Amy, who will work hard to get the meeting on your calendar. When you ask Alexa to book a trip to San Francisco, she’ll reach out to a specialized travel AI to do that.”
Dennis describes the x.ai value prop: “Our mission is to democratize the personal assistant…today, less than 5% of knowledge workers have access to a human personal assistant (or Executive Assistant)…Our data suggests (and research has confirmed) that scheduling a single meeting takes about 17 minutes. We know that US knowledge workers schedule roughly 10 billion meetings per year. The math is simple and staggering: that’s 2.8 billion hours—or 70 million work weeks—in a single year, which translates into billions of dollars in economic output.”
Will AIs such as Amy result in a loss of jobs as they become ubiquitous? The World Economic Forum doesn’t think so, as expressed its recently released report on the Future of Jobs. According to Dennis, “Developing AI agents, like ours, and the hundreds of others on the horizon, requires plenty of human labor. Besides engineers and data scientists, we’ve hired AI trainers (humans who supervise the machine as it learns), customer success experts, and even, AI Interaction designers.”
He concludes, “AI will be an agent of change. It will take over repetitive, rule bound work that computers are so good at. And it will open up opportunities for people to do meaningful work that requires the qualities humans have in abundance: creativity, empathy, and wisdom…If we succeed at our mission, which is to democratize the personal assistant, then we will change the norms of the workplace. The whole question of whether Amy is human will be less exciting, because she just works.”
Use case experiences
Gil Eyal is the CEO of a company called HYPR, also based out of New York; “We’re working to revolutionize influencer marketing by providing clients with in depth audience demographics of social influencers.” Gil runs a small shop, but a very, very busy shop.
“There are 15 people in the company with very aggressive timelines….Every employee has to add value and we can’t afford to hire an assistant to just to schedule meetings.”
Gil has never had an assistant, and with HYPR’s extremely ambitious goals, feels very uncomfortable asking any of his staff to do the equivalent of what he calls “manual labor” and schedule his meetings for him. His meeting load can be huge – around 30 a week involving up to 100 different people. Gil found that he was missing meetings because he had simply missed the invitations, only seeing them when it was too late to respond.
Gil had already received several meeting invitations from an “Amy Ingram” never realizing that she was AI. When he found out who (or what) she really was, he immediately signed up and joined the long waiting list. As Gil puts it, “After waiting several months I found someone who knew someone and they gave me access.” He now describes Amy as a “lifesaver.”
According to Gil, one big bonus is that Amy allows him instant access to information about a meeting – no need to worry about calling someone in the middle of the night when they’re “unavailable”. Amy does make the occasional error, but Gil attributes this to improper instructions on his part, for example if he forgets to mention time zones. He says, “There’s no situation where I tell her to set something up that she forgets.”
Benjamin Mann, the Editor-In-Chief of SnapMunk had this to say of his experience with Amy, “Honestly, when I got the first email, I didn’t even think for one second that I wasn’t dealing with a human. And had I not been told, I probably would never have caught on.”
Ben continues, “The only time that the experience was suspicious was when I used natural language to try to organize the timing (I told Amy that I was only available “AFTER” 1pm, rather than giving her a specific time) and she responded with two times that were before 1pm. Even then though, I thought, “Well, this could just be a really dumb person.” ‘Cause you know, there are a lot of those. So I just rolled with it and it eventually got worked out.”
While x.ai profiles itself as a hardcore technology company, I have found them to combine a high degree of “high touch” with that “high tech.” When I mentioned to Dennis that my preferred form of ending an email was “Take care,” that was the ending that appeared in my next email from Amy. It’s the small things that add together to build a cadre of passionate and loyal customers.
I have been fascinated by the reaction I have gotten from my clients when first introduced to Amy. While I have explained that Amy is artificial intelligence and this is clearly stated in her email signature, her manner of interaction has genuinely provoked responses as if she were indeed human. She has received apologies for tardiness in replying to her mails, and after one call that was scheduled by Amy, I was asked by my client if she could speak to her over the phone to say “hello”.
Have there been hiccups in my adopting Amy as a fully-fledged member of my company? Yes, a few. When I have thought them through, however, it has invariably been me at the source of the fault, usually because I have not expressed myself clearly enough à la “Time to eat Grandma” scenarios. Commas can be critical…
Sometimes when things have gotten too complicated I have wished that Amy had a “start over” button which would wipe her slate clean of some of my miscommunications. One thing I greatly appreciate though, is that before that time comes, Amy will not take any of what I write personally. She will never get mad, snarky or show me her passive aggressive side, because, well, she doesn’t have one – hopefully, while continuing to do her job as well as most humans, she stays not-quite-so-human enough that she never does.
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.
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