To schedule the main interview for this article, I emailed back and forth with a personal assistant named Amy.
She offered me a few times to talk with Dennis Mortensen, CEO and founder of x.ai. I picked a time, but then later had to reschedule. And, because I was going to be on my cell phone instead of in the office, I asked Amy to have Mortensen call me there.
At one point, autocorrect betrayed me and I fired off a response with a typo — embarrassing.
Amy didn’t judge me. She sent off calendar invites and, in the end, Mortensen and I got on the phone to talk about, believe it or not, Amy.
Polite, efficient Amy, who issues thanks for updated contact info, is actually artificial intelligence from x.ai that schedules meetings so that you don’t have to spend time playing ping pong to settle on a time to meet.
X.ai users email Amy (or Andrew) preferences like not wanting to schedule meetings before 10 a.m., or contact info like a Skype ID or conference bridge. Amy saves those preferences and works with your Google Calendar.
So, when a user needs to set up a time to meet with someone, he or she CCs Amy, asking to find a time, and Amy steps in. Once a time’s been agreed on, Amy sends out an invite with all the standard info.
There are two big ideas behind x.ai, Mortensen said.
The first is the concept of invisible software.
“Invisible software is the sense that sure, I do understand technology is applied but I don’t really see it. I don’t touch it, I just interact with it because I want the software to do a set of jobs for me,” he said.
It means the opposite of installing apps or plugins, or signing into a web-based service. There’s no settings page, and no link to open in a new tab.
The other concept is that of jobs. While Amy can’t also order flowers for you significant other or pick up dry cleaning, she can take over the task of setting up an email and report back when finished.
Mortensen makes a distinction between a tool like x.ai that can package up and deliver a completed job, and other tools that aid the human in doing the job themselves.
He used the example of a travel agent versus an online booking site. With an agent, you can give a request (Let’s get the whole family to Miami this weekend for $800.) and walk away. An online booking site might uncover deals or aggregate information on flights, hotels, and rental cars, but the human is still doing the booking.
From Mortensen’s view, when he gets an email from someone about getting together, it doesn’t take much work to decide whether he wants to do it or not.
“Everything between that decision and you and I talking is just pain,” he said.
The design process for x.ai was a little different from what you might think of. Mortensen said instead of thinking of pixels, they were thinking about the small nuances (Period? No period? Is this wording pushier than this other wording?) of language that can engineer the best outcome — a meeting scheduled quickly and efficiently.
“It is literally not constructive at all for me — for anyone to spend my time scheduling meeting,” said Hitlist founder Gillian Morris.
She thinks having something else take care of that makes sense. While there are other tools out there, she finds many of them awkward, like having to direct someone to a separate page where they can request a meeting time, but only after you’ve gone in and designated your availability.
“Those are really off-putting. You would never send that to a peer or an investor because it would be rude,” she said. Amy doesn’t require any extra effort. And for Morris, not having to deal with the scheduling has been a relief, and the reclamation of time.
Similarly, Superpowered’s CEO Patrick Vlaskovits continually deals with an “exploding” inbox. Agreeing to meet comes with an ensuing 10 emails to wrangle details. He said Amy handles most of this scheduling work with only the occasional hiccup.
Making Amy human
One of Mortensen’s concerns is humanizing Amy. It’s not a matter of masking the fact that this is a machine, but rather to avoid creating a situation where people interacting with it feel as though they have to use a specific and stilted syntax in order to communicate successfully.
“If you ask my mom why she doesn’t use Twitter, she’d come to believe that it’s just too complicated. She doesn’t get the hashtags, the RTs, the MTs, even if you and I agree that we could teach her that in 10 minutes,” he said.
However it happened, Twitter users agreed on a syntax, and he doesn’t want that to be the case with Amy. He wants this to be something anyone can use — his mom included.
Another reason is this: “We’ve seen we have a higher likelihood of doing good scheduling if we exist in this human-like world,” he said. So much so, Amy inspires the impulse to type back, “thanks, Amy!” when the invitation gets sent. They actually have had to model against gratitude as a concept, so that when gratitude arrives, Amy doesn’t interpret it as a new task.
He sees this as a good user experience.
Not everyone is immediately convinced of the idea that you could speak naturally to Amy. It’s a challenge to convert certain skeptics, but Mortensen referenced research dealing with what happens to humans when they mostly interact with machines.
“That turns cold very fast,” he said. “I would rather that Amy is so warm and so lovable that certainly, you don’t turn worse. I would hate to see that happen, that I contributed to some certain setting where you and I are just a little bit more cold tomorrow.”