From the sometimes disappointing but often great reality of Siri to the complicated potential of Samantha, the idea of virtual personal assistants helping us with our digital-fuelled lives has captured the public imagination.
Today, another not-quite real female is entering the fray: Amy, a personal assistant that has been built to help you schedule meetings — summoned not through an app or an on-device client, but simply by copying her in on email correspondence between you and the people you are proposing to meet.
Getting copied in triggers Amy (full name: Amy Ingram, apparently) to read the email, look for date and time and place suggestions and then continue to the conversation directly with the other person to find a time and place that works for everyone — and then put the detail into your diary.
The idea here is that rather than taking up your time, or other people’s time, scheduling these meetings, you can use Amy to do it all for you. “Anything which a human PA could add to a traditional meeting invite she can do,” co-founder and CEO Dennis Mortensen tells me.
The New York-based startup that makes Amy, X.ai (“Ex-dot-A I”), is today announcing $2.1 million in funding to develop the product, with the seed round coming from a top-shelf list of investors: IA Ventures, Softbank and Lerer Ventures.
Meanwhile, Amy is still be in a closed beta. You have to register your interest for now, and Mortensen says that a new intake will be made on August 1.
“We are promising 100% service delivery,” he says, meaning that every meeting request is taken care of, and correctly applied, “and that requires a lot of AI training before we open up the floodgates.” Those who have been given early access are already using the service to set up meetings.
Amy currently integrates with basic email and the more popular calendar services like Google’s. The plan down the line, Mortensen says, is to “quickly add new channels; so that you can text Amy, IM Amy or speak to Amy.” He says that the latter is likely to come in two steps, the first being to Amy a message about, say, being late for a meeting. “Asynchronous like the former [features],” he says.
And there are other plans for growth coming up. From what I understand — although Mortensen would not confirm this to me — X.ai has already also made an agreement with Google to promote the service to its business users. Google itself is not an investor in X.ai.
Making Amy as “light” an unintrusive as possible, Mortensen believes, is the key both to his company’s differentiation and potential success where others have done less well.
“There are plenty who tried to solve this in the past and it almost resembles the Battle of Thermopylae. Lots of glory, but 300 smart, well funded entrepreneurs before us, died trying,” he says.
“We are different because we’ve accepted that this pain is not solved with YET another app. We are middleware and do not exist outside of conceptually being a human-like creature who interacts with my friends, colleagues and business contacts. Either we completely remove the pain and have something which could only be done by humans yesterday OR we die! It requires no sign-in, no password, no download.”
But light and easy are deceptive concepts for what is happening under the hood.
As Mortensen describes it, “The two primary concepts that break that utopia of it just being a fairly simple engineering task of transposing one calendar on top of another is the personal preferences of each participant and the rather complex social dynamics that are built into meetings,” he says. “As I emailed Jordy from Softbank about my new venture, at no point in the conversation did we talk about where to meet for a casual presentation, it was understood that that would be his office. Amy needs to know that.”
Crucially, he notes that Amy itself is not an app; nor does it compete with calendar apps. “We do not compete with the new calendars like Tempo and Sunrise,” he says. “We would simply insert into those like we would to the standard Apple Cal./ Google Calendar etc.”
The list of VCs backing X.ai at this early stage is impressive, and so you may be a little unsurprised to hear that this is not the founder’s first rodeo.
Mortensen has been involved in a string of exits, with a lot of his experience specifically in areas like big data analytics, which come into play at X.ai, too. His track record includes selling Visual Revenue to Outbrain (he was the CEO and founder); Indextools to Yahoo (he was a shareholder and COO); and Canvas Interactive to TJ Group (he was founder and CEO).
It’s not all wins, though: an early startup he founded called evonax — “think OpenTable/Seamless for Europe, with a twist” — went bust. “A rather expensive MBA,” he writes in LinkedIn.
But it seems, at least in part, that its the idea and solution that have attracted investors here, rather than Mortensen’s track record itself.
“x.ai is taking on a well-accepted pain, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to a degree rarely seen,” said Brad Gillespie, Partner at IA Ventures, in a statement. “Dennis and the x.ai team is executing on a very ambitious plan, which, if successful, could change the paradigm for how we schedule meetings in the future, perhaps even how we choose to spend our time at work.”
Down the line there are plans to extend Amy’s reach into more than just scheduling a meeting. Think here of not just organising a meeting but ordering the Uber to take you there, or booking a hotel if it’s in another city, or buying the tickets if the meeting is with a friend at a gig. “But I want to be the best in the world at scheduling meetings before we do anything else,” Mortensen says. “My mom used to say, do one thing, but do it so well that is becomes obvious you are the best at it. I am sticking to that!”