The rise of AI and remote assistants
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Whether you leave business school to become a corporate manager, a professional high performer or an entrepreneur, you will spend much of your time on tasks unrelated to your expertise. Only the most senior executives now have dedicated personal assistants and so the more mundane work of email, scheduling meetings and booking travel eats up your time.
A new generation of employees is looking for ways to reclaim that time so they can spend it finding solutions to serious problems: the work that will get them credit and help them advance. This work also develops their expertise and helps them remain valuable when artificial intelligence finally becomes clever enough to do all the most predictable tasks.
Instead of just “bring your own device” — the tech fad of the past decade that allowed people to use their personal computers, smartphones, or other devices for work purposes — these employees are bringing their own assistant. They are paying for services to be completed by either a remote assistant who is a real person in a faraway office, or an AI-based assistant, or a hybrid version of the two.
I like the idea of a person taking care of my to-do list, running through the tasks I hate about my job: scheduling meetings in packed days at conferences, keeping my contacts lists up to date and doing my expenses. There are the tasks I hate in my personal life, too: from calling companies to complain to remembering to send birthday cards early enough to reach family abroad.
But just as bring your own device caused a problem for corporate IT departments, which worried that they could not monitor smartphones they did not own for hackers, I am concerned that companies do not know that their employees are opening up their emails and calendars to remote workers in other organisations or inscrutable AI assistants.
The most basic form of AI assistant is the scheduler. Instead of sending several emails back and forth to find a time to meet, a user can copy in a pretend person, an artificial intelligence that reads your calendar and suggests times for the recipient. These include Julie Desk, Clara Labs and x.ai.
When I contacted x.ai to arrange a call with its chief executive, “Andrew”, the AI, stepped in to set a time. At first, as a recipient, it felt a little rude: did they think their time was worth more than mine? But people get used to rudeness with technology: see the social acceptability of smartphones on the dinner table and children ordering around Alexa, Amazon’s AI personal assistant.
Andrew suggested two times, right next to each other, not perhaps having the human sense to see I would rather have a choice of slots more spread out, in case I was not free for the whole afternoon. After I declined, he replied with the next slot in the chief executive’s calendar, also that afternoon, even though I had made several other suggestions.
Eventually, we made it work. Dennis Mortensen, x.ai’s chief executive, said he focused the company on “vertical AI”, doing one thing well, because it was better to automate something “so simple, but so annoying”, than try, and fail, to fulfil the full tasks of a personal assistant. He sees x.ai as a “rebel product” that will spread through companies, like Dropbox and Slack before it, because employees see the need before their IT director does.
Employees at companies from Salesforce to LinkedIn, Walmart to The New York Times have adopted the product, which costs $17 a month for an individual. It costs $59 a month per user if an enterprise wants to buy it with extra security protections and analytics, which can be used “to drive productivity”. He says these are “individuals in pain” and he wants to provide other vertical services, such as booking travel or claiming expenses.
However, some people who want a broader range of tasks taken off their hands are turning to remote assistants who are actual people whose time they can book in increments.
Fancy Hands is one such service, providing US-based assistants who can do everything from manage travel itineraries to calling customer service. They can even take on higher-level tasks such as generating leads for sales or sifting applications for entry-level posts. Plans range from five requests a month at $30 to 50 requests a month at $199.99. Other companies include Get Friday, where you can also buy gift vouchers for stressed friends, and Moneypenny in the UK.
Joshua Boltuch, chief executive of Fancy Hands, says many tasks need a human’s ability to think critically. But he says even Fancy Hands’ assistants are better at tasks where there is a black-and-white answer not, for example, buying you a dress for an event, which a personal assistant may be able to do if they know your taste in clothes.
Another service, Fin, tries to make the best of both worlds by combining human and machine intelligence. Sam Lessin, founder of Fin Exploration, writes in his blog how he uses Fin to set up regular catch-ups, follow up with people he meets at conferences, prepare for meetings with new people, submit expenses, or to arrange events. Fin charges a dollar “per effective minute worked”, based on its own calculations of how long tasks take, with a monthly minimum of two hours, or $120.
All these services appear tempting for those pressed for time. But I still worry that by adopting these services on your own, you could potentially expose corporate secrets, in return for saving you and your employer time and money.
Instead, I believe buying subscriptions to these services could be a better perk than benefits such as free snacks or on-premises dry cleaning. It could be especially useful for people juggling work with caring responsibilities.
Employers can then monitor the services to ensure they are secure and understand which tasks are being outsourced. Employees can get help in the short term, but spend their time on the important work that is essential for their careers in the long run.
Start-up founders take to the concept of remote assistants
Entrepreneurs are particularly attracted to using virtual assistant services, as their businesses grow in fits and starts, making it hard to know when to take on new staff. Importantly, start-up founders also get to make their own rules about their businesses and so can decide what information they are happy to expose to an AI service or remote assistant.
AJ Vaynerchuk, co-founder of VaynerSports, an agency that represents athletes, “gave up the luxury of having a full-time assistant” when he started using Fin. The investor at Uber, Snapchat and Venmo says the more he uses the platform, the more he gets out of it.
Alexis Ohanian, founder of social site Reddit and travel app Hipmunk, swears by Fancy Hands, the remote assistant service. “[It] allows me to hand off tasks like scheduling, calling and research so I can focus on what’s most important,” he said in a review on the company’s site.
On Twitter, founders rave about Amy, the x.ai scheduler. Christian Lassonde, founder of Impression VC, said it was “magic”. “Amy finally connected a meeting decline to an email saying we had to reschedule. I love it when technology works,” he says.
Heather Grove, owner and managing director of consulting company Caliber Insights, said that people often mistake her AI assistant for a real person.
Hannah Kuchler is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent
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