From Elon to "Ex Machina," the "demon" AI space is getting a bad rap. Enter Amy, x.ai's robot personal assistant
Artificial intelligence is becoming the de facto trope in horror movies — and for fatalists to point to — as the potential means by which the human race does itself in.
This summer, for instance, the film "Ex Machina" pitted Ava, an AI-driven robot that can replicate the emotions of humans, against her creator in what a few critics have pegged one of the most suspenseful films of the year. Beyond the big screen, you don't have to search far for soundbites of the technorati — including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking — giving dire warnings for the potential threat to existence posed by artificial intelligence.
Musk has probably been the most outspoken about AI. I was in the room in Cambridge last year when, in a break from many of the topics being discussed during an MIT AeroAstro event, Musk veered into a rant on AI, referring to it as "summoning the demon." It's an eerie term to have associated with artificial intelligence and is even more disturbing coming out of the mouth of one of the world's foremost innovators in a room full of astrophysicists, technologists, and scientists. Musk even went so far in his anti-AI crusade to give $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to keep AI "friendly."
One New York-based AI startup is doing just that without the help of Musk's fat pocketbook. A company called x.ai has developed an AI solution to scheduling that is both simple and, to some degree, quite enchanting.
The way x.ai works is similar to other automatic scheduling applications, but it has a lot more built-in intuitiveness and features one of the closest experiences to having a personal assistant in any product I've used.
When scheduling a meeting with someone through email, a user of x.ai only needs to give the details to imaginary personal assistant "Amy Ingram" and the x.ai system will find times that work for all participants and schedule the meeting. Amy is quite smart, checking all possible calendars a user may have, finding the best times available between already blocked off periods in a calendar, while learning users' preferences (one person may like face-to-face meetings while another only takes meetings in the morning).
Currently, there is quite a long wait list to get access to the application. Dennis Mortensen, x.ai's co-founder and CEO said the reason is that x.ai wants to get the product as close to perfect as possible.
"This is one of those products where good enough probably isn't good enough," said Mortensen. "We've been setting up tens of thousands of meetings, and after everyone, we are a little bit smarter. We need this to be a nearly perfect product."
While perfecting the product is part of the reason for the waitlist, another is the sheer virality of Amy.
"The product is all about inviting, so you have to somewhat expose Amy to your friends or business relationships," explained Mortensen. "Your friends then have to try the product and have conversations back and forth in order to get things on your calendar."
Having experienced the application myself, I must say, once you realize how easily you can communicate with the application and how close to having a real life assistant Amy is, it is tough to not want to use it.
The company isn't sharing the number of users or those on the waitlist, but Mortensen said, "It's very good. Think about what you would think might be a good number and then multiply that by two."
The company is continuing to work on the product and will be adding features that could be packaged as a subscription model Mortensen said would cost the same as a "cup of coffee." One such add-on that Mortensen hinted at would be the ability to change the name of the assistant to something other than "Amy Ingram," which he explained is related to "AI" through both her initials and the fact that it's a play on the word "n-gram," a term related to computational linguistics.
"We are really, really nerdy," Mortensen said.
Pretty quietly, x.ai has raised more than $12 million in funding since being founded in 2013. Last year, x.ai raised $10 million in a Series A round from FirstMark Capital, Pritzker Group, CrunchFund, IA Ventures, Softbank Capital, and Lerer Hippeau Ventures.
Despite its healthy amount of funding, the app itself still has a long way to go. But Mortensen hopes to be able to open up the app to everyone who wants to try it in the second half of the year.
"We've spent two years on the core technology, and it's either a brave endeavor or insane, or some combination of the two," Mortensen said. Hopefully, it's not too insane, like Terminator insane.
Mortensen, who actually did a cross promotion with x.ai and "Ex Machina" said that what they are building is the beneficial type of artificial intelligence.
"[It's] something we hope will improve the lives of everyone."