Portrait by Paul Flessland
Connecting with people is an important part of my job, and I enjoy it.
It often requires a lot of maneuvering of schedules and a parade of emails before a date and time is decided upon. Though I don’t particularly dislike the email ping-pong that ensues, it left me searching for a better way to do it.
For some time, I have been using online scheduling forms such as Doodle, Appointy, and Calendly, and they work great. Still I wondered, though, “Is there an even better way to optimize the tools I already use—one that integrates my email and calendar?”
Meet Amy Ingram, my virtual personal assistant.
Her initials are, of course, A.I., the same ones typically used to describe artificial intelligence. The rest of her last name, n-gram, is a technique used in computational linguistics for text- and speech-mining and analytics. And you guessed it: Amy is not a human. She’s a sophisticated algorithm for scheduling my preferred time, created by New York City startup x.ai.
“Though I don’t particularly dislike the email ping-pong that ensues, it left me searching for a better way to do it.”
All I have to say in my email communication is “My virtual assistant, Amy, will find us a time for coffee this week,” and blind-copy her. She then knows to schedule an hour during my preferred coffee-drinking time, and she’s programmed to know when I’m available to jump in a call for a half hour. It works brilliantly, and having an assistant includes a heavy dose of ego-stroking appeal!
The company boasts hundreds of thousands of schedules being handled using Amy or her male counterpart, Andrew Ingram. This is personal computing elevated to the next level. Move over “There’s an app for that.” That’s so 2015!
With human-like phrases such as, “Happy to schedule a time with you and Betty,” it becomes tricky to not try and interact with Amy in a personal way. Even though I have informed my contacts this is a virtual assistant, they still ask, “Amy, can you have Betty come in 10 minutes early?” or ”Please inform Betty that . . . ”
One day, I received an email from Amy: “Since you and I have gotten used to each other, I will spare your inbox forwards of my communications.”
“Hmmm,” I wondered aloud, “Should I be worried?”
Turns out my fear was justified. I almost missed an important meeting because I shared a calendar with my husband, and Amy replied to my contact, “Unfortunately, that time doesn’t work for Betty. ”
Oops, it was time to intervene.
This “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is a time of extraordinary change and offers boundless possibilities. The specialty-smart-bots market is already crowded with many agents doing similar things. And not just for scheduling but also as career development advisors and HR assistants, among others.
“We’re not setting out to build a human-assistant replacement,” says Charles Lee, the cofounder of Gene, another smart bot on the market. “It’s a product to address the 99 percent of the population that doesn’t have one. Our target user is not going to be the C-level executive who already has an assistant.”
A smart realization of the limitations, complexities, and importance of social maneuvering in human interactions, if you ask me.