Sunday, December 20, 2015

Impressions from a couple weeks with my new robo-assistant, Amy Ingram

Like many, I both love the idea of artificial intelligence and hate spending time on logistics. For that reason, I was super excited to hear about, which is some startup in NYC that makes an artificially intelligent scheduler e-mail bot. It takes care of this problem (e-mail conversation):
“Hey Arjun, can we meet next week to talk about some cool project idea or another?”
“Sure, let’s try sometime late next week. How about Thursday 2pm?”
“Oh, actually, I’ve got class then, but I’m free at 3pm.”
“Hmm, sorry, I’ve got something else at 3pm. Maybe Friday 1pm?”
“Unfortunately I’m out of town on Friday, maybe the week after?”
“Sure, what about Tuesday?”
“Well, only problem is that…”
And so on.’s solution works like this:
“Hey Arjun, can we meet next week to talk about some cool project idea or another?”
“Sure, let’s try sometime late next week. I’m CCing my assistant Amy, who will find us a time.”
And that’s it! Amy will e-mail back and forth with whoever wrote to me and find a time to meet that fits us both, putting it straight on my calendar without me having to lift another finger. Awesome.

So how well does it work? Overall, really well. It took a bit of finagling at first to make sure that that my calendar was appropriately set up (like making sure I’m set to “available” even if my calendar has an all day event) and that Amy knew my preferences, but overall, out of the several meetings attempted so far, only one of them got mixed up, and to be fair, it was a complicated one involving multiple parties and some screw ups on my part due to it being the very first meeting I scheduled with Amy. Overall, Amy has done a great job removing scheduling headaches from my life–indeed, when I analyzed a week in my e-mail, I was surprised how much was spent on scheduling, and so this definitely reduces some overhead. Added benefit: Amy definitely does not drop the ball.

One of the strangest things about using this service so far has been my psychological responses to working with it (her?). Perhaps the most predictable one was that I don’t feel like a “have your people call my people” kind of person. I definitely feel a bit uncomfortable saying things like “I’m CCing my assistant who will find us a time”, like I’m some sort of Really Busy And Important Person instead of someone who teaches a class and jokes around with twenty-somethings all day. Perhaps this is just a bit of misplaced egalitarian/lefty anxiety, or imposter syndrome manifesting itself as a sense that I don’t deserve admin support, or the fact that I’m pretty sure I’m not actually busy enough to merit real human admin support. Anyway, whatever, I just went for it.

So then this is where it starts getting a bit weird. So far, I haven’t been explicitly mentioning that Amy is a robot in my e-mails (like “I’m CCing my robo-assistant Amy…”). That said, for the above reasons of feeling uncomfortably self-important, I actually am relieved when people figure out that it’s a robot, since it somehow seems a bit less “one-percenty”. So why didn't I just say she’s a robot right off the bat? To be perfectly honest, when I really think about it, it’s because I didn't want to hurt her feelings! It’s so strange. Other examples: for the first few meetings, Amy CCs you on the e-mail chain so you can see how she handles it. I felt a strong compulsion to write saying “Thank you!” at the end of the exchange. Same when I write to her to change preferences. Like
“Amy, I prefer my meetings in the afternoon.”
“Okay, I have updated your preferences as follows…”
… “Thank you?!?!?”
Should I bother with the formalities of my typical e-mails, with a formal heading and signature? I think I’ve been doing it, even though it obviously (probably?) doesn’t matter.

Taking it a bit further, should I be nice? Should I get angry if she messes something up? Will my approval or frustration even register? Probably not, I tell myself. But then again, what if it’s part of her neural network to detect feelings of frustration. Would her network change the algorithms somewhat in response? Is that what I would want to happen? I just don’t know. I have to say that I had no idea that this little experiment would have me worrying about the intricacies of human/AI relations.

In some sense, then, I was actually a bit relieved at the outcome of the following exchange. As a test, Sara worked with Amy to set up an appointment for us to get a coffee milkshake (inside joke). She then told Amy to tell me that I should wear camouflage to the appointment, a point that Amy dutifully relayed to me:
Hi Arjun,
I just wanted to pass along this message I received from Sara. It doesn’t look like it’s a message I can provide an answer to, so I suggest you follow up with Sara. directly.
Thanks, Amy! 2 o'clock would be great. And please make sure he wears camouflage. Sara
To which I responded:
Hi Amy, 
Thanks for the note. Can you please tell Sara that I don’t own any camouflage?
And then I heard this back:
Hi Arjun,
Right now I can't pass requests like this to your guests. I think your message would have a stronger impact if you sent it directly to Sara.
Ah, a distinctly and reassuringly non-human, form-like response. What a relief! Looks like we've still got a little way to go before we have to worry about her (its?) feelings. Still, the singularity is coming, one meeting at a time!


  1. This is amazing! I just signed up. I despise scheduling and will happily cc Amy. :) Thanks for posting about this.

  2. This sounds neat, but I'm a little confused: don't professors at UPenn get human admin support? At my institution, each professor gets at least 50% of the time of a human administrator/secretary (and this includes starting professors), and scheduling is definitely one of the things the admins do for the professors (using shared Google Calendars, typically).

    (My undergrad institution was very poor, and in a poor country, so the professors there had to do admin tasks on their own, but after having seen professors get admin support at Harvard, Stanford, etc., I assumed that at least all top 10/20 schools would have admin support for their professors.)

    1. Haha, well, for us, depends on the professor. :)

  3. This seems like a really neat use of NLP/AI. I curious how they plan to make money out of this though... they took ~$10MM is venture funding, so it's not just some nice side project of a few grad students.

    1. Hehe, dunno about making money out of it, but I do hope they figure it out so that the service doesn't disappear one day!