For me, my great relationship with Amy Ingram started with an email from her asking to set up a time for me to talk with Andy Rink, a founder of Lully, a hot Silicon Valley start-up whom I’d met and reached out to set up a time to talk further.
With a warm, collegial email Amy introduced herself to me as Andy’s personal assistant and offered up a few times that would work best for him.
She also offered to send along a calendar invite, confirmation, and conference line to use once we decided on a time.
I did a double take after reading Amy’s email, when I realized that her personal assistant signature line identified her as a.i., or in other, words artificial intelligence.
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Awestruck with Amy
As Amy’s still in beta mode, I signed up on the x.ai website for the waitlist, as well as reached out in the comments section to their team a bit awe-struck at the A-MAY-ZING Amy, wanting to learn more about what, or make that whom, they’ve created. Thanks to Amy, who stepped in to schedule a call, I spoke with Dennis Mortensen, the company’s founder. As I ran a couple of minutes late dialing in, I got a warm reminder outreach from Amy making sure all was well on my end and saying they were on the conference line waiting for me, with a reminder of the call-in number.
So many of us say, “Oh, my life would be so much easier if I just had a personal assistant!” And up until now, you either had to have the rank and seniority at work to merit your own executive assistant, or turn to a thriving market of “virtual assistants,” ready to jump in remotely on a fairly high paid hourly basis to help out with administrative and personal tasks.
Still in start-up mode, the company has raised $2 million in Series C financing and $10 million in Series A funding. Dennis describes his team of mostly engineers as “60 propeller heads in the basement,” focused for most of the past two years on engineering the artificial intelligence itself. While currently Amy only works with a Google calendar, by the time she reaches the market in mid-2016, she’ll work with all the major calendaring platforms out there, from Outlook to Exchange Servers.
Creating a Voice, Setting a Tone
Dennis shared that a particular challenge with Amy had involved creating a voice versus a “bag of email templates.” To help create her voice, they brought on a drama major out of Harvard, who’s worked tirelessly over the past year to develop Amy’s persona and create consistency of voice.
Amy also picks up on your tone and adaptively reflects the formality or casualness of the language you use in your emails to a particular person. Thus, she can be formal reaching out to corporate counsel or easy-going setting up a meeting with a friend. If you’re always formal, then she will be as well. Want a guy assistant instead? No problem, as Andrew Ingram works just as Amy but with a male persona.
Discovering the Secret Sauce
As they move to market, the team has also spent a tremendous amount of time testing the efficacy of Amy’s messages, such figuring out which ones get the quickest responses or mostly likely end up with successful meetings scheduled from Amy’s outreach.
Here’s a typical email from Amy:
Happy to get something on Stefanie's calendar. Does Wednesday, Dec 16 at 11:30 AM work? Alternatively, Stefanie is available Wednesday, Dec 16 at 4:00 PM or Thursday, Dec 17 at 10:00 AM.
I'll include the dial-in on the invite.
Amy Ingram | Personal Assistant
x.ai – artificial intelligence that schedules meetings
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Going Beyond “Good Enough”
As much as the x.ai team sprints to getting Amy to market, Dennis believes that “good enough” will not be good enough in the case of building people’s trust in Amy. If the experience does not prove seamless, reliable and accurate, then people won’t use her.
So far Amy has scheduled over 1.5 million meetings, continually improving in accuracy and creating a high confidence level in those who use her. There can often be four to five dialogues back and forth on one meeting alone, as plans get shifted and rescheduling needs to be done. Consider this:
- She has to reconcile human mistakes, such as offering up a differing day of the week from the calendar day.
- She has to figure out where to meet when there are multiple possibilities, such as at which of the three Starbucks at Union Square you last met that person.
Dennis points out that unlike human assistants, machines have total recall and don’t forget details. Amy will remember exactly when you last talked or where you last met a person. And Amy can keep a secret, does not gossip, has no bad moods, and never gets exacerbated if elaborate scheduling plans she worked on have to be cancelled or moved. She understands if you’re running late, and she needs to jump in to re-juggle your calls and meetings.
A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way
Dennis and team felt passionate about humanizing Amy and Andrew. Especially around meetings, constant negotiations go on: who calls who, where to meet, who can you bring to the meeting or have listen in on the call, and so on. With all of this back and forth, people respond best with some empathy: such as Amy reaching out to you to ask, “I know it’s late, but can we do seven p.m.?”
In turn, you can tell Amy what you like and don’t like. Amy, in turn, can bend the rules on your behalf, such as making the decision that while you asked for no calls after 6, that an important call you want to be set up is worth scheduling at 6:15. As she gets to know your preferences, she won’t even bother you to ask.
10 Billion Meetings & Counting
So what’s the scope of Amy and Andrew’s potential reach? It’s estimated that 10 billion formal meetings get set up in U.S. every year. And Amy and Andrew will be there at the ready. As to the financial piece of x.ai’s business model: they anticipate offering up a free edition that will cap the amount of meetings that Amy can set up for you each month, say six, and for a modest paid premium you can get access to unlimited meetings.
When both people are setting up a meeting use Amy, she can create these magical, frictionless moments and the whole thing comes together instantly as she can view both people’s calendars and preferences.
First, Do No Harm
What about if Amy has a glitch, I mused? A nefarious Amy could potentially cause a whole heap of trouble, not to mention that she has access to a great deal of confidential information. What happens if the government wants to know? Dennis points out that people have more to fear from a human assistant, who can gossip and make mistakes such as sending an email meant to be confidential to “reply all.” As to confidentiality, it’s a huge priority to keep all their data securely locked down.
As they start acquiring users at scale, the x.ai team will be able to refine Amy’s ability to help, and add even more functionality down the line. I envision a day when Amy could jump in to help with everything from birthday reminders to changing travel arrangements. Also, you could see the market allure of corporations engaging Amy in scale to help all of their workers. Also, Amy will have ways to deal with anyone difficult to work with.
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A Brave New World
Still in beta-mode and with a sign-up option on their website, you can join one of thousands hoping to get early access to Amy’s diligent and charismatic time and attention. There you’ll find social media sharing options from LinkedIn to Facebook, each of different values that will rise you up on the wait list. Hop on this now, because before summer arrives in 2016, expect to see Amy become available to everyone wanting her attention, and for the first time, we’ll see in the market a democratization of the availability of a personal assistant.
Ultimately, as Amy moves to scale, she also will likely change the very tapestry of human interactions, and represent the brave new world where artificial intelligence and humanity align.