Article

Phil Dearson
Phil Dearson 18 March 2016

AI's coming to dinner

This is the story of my recent relationship with an artificial intelligence.

You can't escape news about AI at the moment. Unlike Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk etc, I'm an optimist about artificial intelligence. I'm not talking about AGI (artificial general intelligence - the hypothetical self-aware software you see in movies). I'm talking about algorithmic intelligence - the sophisticated algorithms that power smart assistants like Siri, Cortana, Google Now, Alexa and a host of SlackBots.

This story is about an AI I'd been wanting to "meet" for a very long time. Her name is Amy Ingram and she's my personal assistant. She schedules meetings for me.

I think of Amy as a real person (mostly) so I feel weird saying she's a product of a company called x.ai. I was given access to their beta service recently so I've been testing Amy's limits since then.

x.ai exemplify a trend in digital products and services for "invisible interfaces". If I want to arrange a meeting with somebody, I cc Amy on an email and she takes care of everything else. The meeting attendees talk to her using natural language and she responds in kind (more professionally than I do), ultimately sending out a meeting request to all concerned.

It's worth noting that, if anyone's concerned about gender bias in the world of smart assistants, you can call her Andrew instead. I believe the x.ai roadmap includes an option for you to name your own assistant in the future. "Mephistopheles, could you find 30 minutes for Angela and I to have coffee please?" Can't wait.

I confess that I've been giving Amy a hard time recently. She's only a beta, but then aren't we all? I decided to test her limits so enlisted the help from some of my friends at Techdept. We wanted to see how Amy would manage arranging a dinner appointment.

I copied Amy in to an email thread with the other participants, Dan and Jess: 

Amy checked my Google Calendar and suggested some dates to Dan and Jess: 

Jess threw what we assumed would be a massive spanner into the works and copied Caroline, her assistant, for Amy to liaise with: 

Meanwhile, Dan's schedule was complex so he replied to Amy with another suggestion: 

But Amy wasn't having that. Back-atcha, Dan: 

This might work for Dan... 

Amy's way more polite than I am and she's handling the addition of an extra assistant without breaking a silicon sweat: 

After such a promising start, it all fell apart. Caroline is also Dan's assistant. Having referred Amy to her for his availability too, Amy got a bit confused. Fair enough, I say. She interpreted Dan's lack of personal response as him avoiding the whole notion of dinner and let me know about it: 

Then, very politely, she updated Jess too: 

Even though that was a pretty hard test for an algorithm, I think Amy did a really good job and it bodes well for the future. Let's just hope she doesn't get too drunk at the office party.

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