Humanizing Artificially Intelligent Agents - and Why it Matters

By Sophie Curtis on December 15, 2015

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A company is applying artificial intelligence to solve a problem that every office struggles with - scheduling and organisation. How will they accomplish this for 400 million users? With a little help from one efficient personal assistant named Amy. 

Amy isn’t a real person but a software agent that exists in the cloud and communicates with email contacts, helping set up meetings and appointments. The software is being developed by x.ai, which hopes to create something that seems virtually indistinguishable from a real human. They seem to be on their way to achieving their mission as Amy is often mistaken for a human, even receiving flowers, chocolates and drinks from grateful users to thank her for her work!

At the Virtual Assistant Summit in San Francisco next month, Dennis Mortensen, CEO and Founder of x.ai, will discuss why the company chose the AI path and how they have successfully humanized the AI. Dennis will also explain the idea of Invisible Software (you know there is technology applied, but you don’t see it) and how he and the team envision a future of intelligent agents' jobs in full - in contrast to apps that only empower humans.

I caught up with Dennis to hear more about how the company got started, and what we can expect in the future.

Tell us more about x.ai and why you started the company.
x.ai is an AI driven personal assistant who schedules meetings for you. Simply cc: Amy @ x.ai (or her brother Andrew) and she’ll do the job, taking into account your calendar and preferences (“Amy, no Monday meetings before 10am for me”). There’s no app, and nothing for you to download.

"Hi John, I'd love to meet up. I cc'ed Amy and she can help get something on my calendar the third week of December, when I am back in New York." The next thing you see is the invite. Nice, right?

Scheduling meetings is such a massive painpoint that you and I don’t even need to debate it. If we eliminate this as a human task, then we’ll all be tremendously more productive. The usual email ping-pong that comes along with arranging a meeting simply cannot be the future.

I personally scheduled 1,019 meetings the year before we started x.ai, and I had 670 updates or reschedules. Yuck! It was quite obviously time for me to work on a solution. The only viable solution, in my mind, is one where you emulate a human personal assistant through artificial intelligence. So far we’re off to an amazing start.

What is your main goal for x.ai?
We schedule meetings. No more. No less! And I won't rest until we deliver on our vision of x.ai scheduling 10 billion meetings a year! That is not to say that Amy won’t pick up new exciting scheduling skills along the way, which will make her an even more indispensable assistant (intelligent agent).

What developments can we expect to see in virtual assistants in the next 5 years?
High specialization and an immediate grouping into what we would describe as horizontal agents (or enablers if you will) and specialized vertical agents--which do a single job only and do it extremely well.

The new relationship will look more like this: “Hey Siri, could you have Amy set up a meeting between Michelle, James, and I early next week please.” Amy being the verticalized AI doing the actual job.

What are the main applications for virtual assistants currently?
Most virtual assistants that are massively deployed today (think Siri, Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa) are horizontal agents. Question-Answer machines. Wonderful and very sophisticated software, but it’s still only able to assist you in doing a task, not yet able to take on an entire JOB.

Perhaps these horizontal assistants are not supposed to be anything else. What if we reframe Siri’s purpose?. Rather than being disappointed about her limited skillset, and taking the occasional jab at her, you could look to a different type of assistant--the vertical specialized agents--to perform actual jobs and to do so extremely well.

To expand on the prior question, I believe two outcomes are imminent:

1. Your expectations of your horizontal agent and the way you work with him or her would quickly change.

2. An intelligent agent market place will emerge. Remember how the iPhone initially came with a few dozen apps all created by Apple? Fast forward to today’s millions of apps by various creators. Maybe it was a bit naive for Apple to believe that it could create and publish all the Apps ever needed. I think it’s just as naive to believe that any horizontal agent will hold all the answers to the world’s questions and posses the ability to do all the jobs needed. Thus the likelihood that a marketplace will be created.

Which new verticals and industries will this expand to in the future and what would the impact be?
I believe any industry in which people perform intelligent, but still routine jobs, is ripe for automation (the introduction of intelligent agents). This statement doesn’t suggest massive negative disruption to the workforce, which is the most obvious kneejerk reaction to AI driven agents I hear. I am personally much more optimistic and would suggest that we might finally end up with the time to do what humans do best—apply creativity, empathy etc. to the equation—instead of filling out forms, or writing generic emails, or negotiating meetings those small jobs to which humans add little value, and perhaps even end up as detractors.

What advancements excite you most in the field?
These are very exciting times. Being an inbox zero guy, I am super fond of Google’s Smart Reply.

Dennis Mortensen will be speaking at the RE•WORK Virtual Assistant Summit in San Francisco, on 28-29 January 2016. Other speakers include Nick Triantos, SRI International; Deborah Harrison, Cortana, Luca Rigazio, Panasonic Silicon Valley Laboratory; Tim Tuttle, MindMeld; and Dror Oren, Kasisto.

The Virtual Assistant Summit is taking place alongside the Deep Learning SummitTickets for these events are now limited, for more information and to book your place please visit the event page here.

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