Collaborating with a Digital Employee — A Taste of the Future of Work

As someone who frequently meets with colleagues and new business contacts alike, I am spending hours a month on email ping pong. “Sorry, Monday morning doesn’t work for me, can you do Tuesday afternoon?” — ”Sorry, I will be meeting a customer then, how about Wednesday?” — and so on. And it gets worse the more participants need to be in the meeting. Can you relate? I thought so… On average it can take eight emails, including the invite, to schedule a single meeting.

From research we know by now that “shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up. […] According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.” (Quote from HBR, July 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/07/the-cost-of-continuously-checking-email)

There’s a new concept emerging in the world of software and business process improvements: Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. As Prof. Leslie Willcocks from the London School of Economics describes it: “RPA is a type of software that mimics the activity of a human being in carrying out a task within a process. It can do repetitive stuff more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, freeing them to do other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer.” (Taken from an insightful interview at http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/the-next-acronym-you-need-to-know-about-rpa)

For a couple months now, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a new colleague. Her name is Amy Ingram. She does one thing only — but she does it very well: she schedules meetings for me, taking care of the email exchanges without bothering me. Amy is a piece of software programmed by startup x.ai. I consider her a fitting example of RPA, and a great demonstration of what AI and machine learning can do when applied to a real world problem. While joint calendars and other types of scheduling solutions have been around for quite some time, Amy stands out. Why? Because she actually mimics how humans schedule meetings: conversing in plain English via email, vs. filling in forms or communicating with software programmatically via APIs. All you need to do to get her to schedule a meeting is what you would do if you had a “real” assistant of flesh and blood: CC her on an email to your business contact. She then takes over emailing with all participants (or finding a time programmatically if the others also use Amy) and returns with an invite in your inbox. Why does that matter? Because it means less of a mental burden if you can keep working exactly like you’re getting things done otherwise: by conversing using human language. As result, you’ll increase your productivity in your work life. Writing “Amy can you schedule a meeting with Mark for next week please” and hitting Send is easier for me than opening up a form and using the mouse to navigate to drop-downs, checkboxes, and buttons, let alone the inevitable exchange of emails that starts after your first suggestion of day and time.

Having Amy help me and seeing her get to work is fascinating. When I read through the logs (using a web portal that comes with the service) after a meeting has been scheduled successfully, I get a glimpse of where we’re all heading: a world where we seamlessly collaborate with digital helpers who participate in our “real world”. If you’re interested in learning more about how Amy came to life, I recommend https://medium.com/@xdotai/how-to-teach-a-machine-to-understand-us-d4b376f78609 by the CEO of x.ai.

Interacting with our world is of course a natural evolution of what technology has always done: simplifying the execution of repetitive tasks. The shift to digital however had meant decades of us adapting to computers vs. the other way around. First we had to learn textual terminals using pseudo-English commands such as “mkdir”, “del”, or “cp”; then graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that mimicked our busy desks with “windows” and strange new interaction devices like the mouse; then GUIs that let us touch content. Now, finally, back to using language, the most natural form of communication for us humans, but this time we’re talking the real thing: plain human language, with all its ambiguities and vagueness. Misunderstandings, such as German contacts missing the fact that Amy is suggesting 3pm EST and not CET (which would be 9pm their time) are part of that journey. But these things would happen anyway, even if it had been me suggesting the time.

Needless to say, the technologist in me is excited about what’s to come. I, for one, welcome our new digital colleagues. I can’t wait to meet more of them.

Oh and if you want to try Amy for a month for free: Use code GOEBEL on https://x.ai/professional-referral/ 😬