If one of Jonathan Hall’s students at U of T wants to see him outside class, they can make an appointment with his personal assistant, Amy Ingram.
She is unfailingly polite and always responds quickly to email — no matter how busy she is — and isn’t paid a cent.
But neither Hall, an assistant professor of economics, nor the university risk running into trouble with the Ministry of Labour.
The reason: Amy, as her initials A.I. reveal, is in fact an artificially intelligent, virtual assistant. She was designed by the New York City startup, x.ai, to help people manage their ever-busier schedules.
There is no download required to use Amy. After signing up online — there is a long wait list — you ‘cc’ her email address when replying to a request for a meeting. She takes care of the tiresome back-and-forth to arrange a time. The appointment is synced with your online calendar.
She and the male version Andrew are among the many virtual assistants for hire on the web. Another popular one is Clara by Clara Labs in San Francisco. They are part of a new generation of machines, who sound a little less like robots and a bit more like us, experts say.
“Lots of people are working on this, on making the interaction richer, deeper, more contextual and broader,” said Satinder Singh Baveja, the director of the University of Michigan’s artificial intelligence laboratory, which has no connection to x.ai.
But teaching a bot to process natural language is tricky, said his colleague Walter Lasecki, because speech is often vague.
People make all kinds of assumptions in conversation that a person would understand but that would confuse an artificially intelligent agent.
Amy isn’t perfect. Although she has spared Hall a couple of hours of email tag in her last two weeks on the job, she occasionally slips up.
“A student’s email called me ‘Professor Hall’ and Amy was completely confused,” he said.
Like a human, she can be forgetful. More than once she’s asked him for his office address.
But if any of his undergraduate students have noticed glitches, they haven’t said anything. Actually, they haven’t seemed to realize they were talking to a machine at all.
It may be Amy’s manner of speaking. “Happy to get something on Jonathan’s calendar,” she’ll say. Or: “I’m sorry, but that time doesn’t work for Jonathan.”
She even has her own LinkedIn page boasting of her “exceptional interpersonal skills.”
Amy’s makers aim to fine-tune her brain after studying data gathered during open testing, said x.ai’s CEO Dennis Mortensen, who co-founded x.ai in 2014.
The epiphany that led to the company’s creation occurred after he had a look at the number of rescheduled meetings he had the previous year. Of 1,019 meetings, 672 had to be changed he said in a phone interview arranged by Amy with a little help from a press aide.
Amy’s family name Ingram is a reference to n-gram, a term in computational linguistics. They called her Amy because Mortensen had a human assistant by that name while working at another company, he said.
Once x.ai finishes beta testing sometime this year, they will introduce a paid version with added features, including a customizable name, to go along with the free edition. Amy and Andrew will finally earn a little for their work. The fee will be in the range of $9 (U.S.) a month, Mortensen said.
“We want this to democratize the idea of the personal assistant,” he said. “It should not be a luxury anymore to have somebody put in place to manage your meetings.”
It’s unclear how many people are using Amy or Andrew because x.ai won’t say. They are restricting the number of users to make it easier to interpret data in the testing stage, a spokeswoman said.
Out of all the cities where Amy and her brother operate, they have organized the third-most meetings in Toronto, after New York City and San Francisco, she said.
One tidbit developers gleaned from their research is that 11 per cent of messages in email threads involving Amy or Andrew had no purpose except to show gratitude. “Thanks Amy, you’re a real sweetheart,” one person wrote, according to x.ai.
Despite Amy’s foibles Hall says he’ll continue to rely on her to make appointments with undergrads.
But he’s not yet ready to trust her with arranging meetings with his department head — if only to avoid having to explain how he can afford his own personal assistant.