A startup called X.ai finished a $23 million funding round this month, jostling for a position in the tech giant-dominated market of AI-driven personal assistants (PA). With competition from Apple’s Siri, Facebook’s M, and Microsoft’s Cortana, X.ai’s development of their personal assistant program, Amy Ingram, seems like an uphill battle. But intuitive features, natural language, and early entry may help the startup challenge the giants.

X.ai has placed bets on the idea that time is precious and time management is an unnecessary annoyance. According to CEO and founder Dennis R. Mortensen, his 2012 calendar consisted of 1019 meetings, each of which he scheduled himself. He says over half of those were either updated or rescheduled at least once. 

We’ve all been there. Whether it’s casual coffee with a coworker, brunch with a potential client, or dinner with the family, plans almost always have an asterisk and a footnote that reads, “Subject to change.” Executives, entrepreneurs, journalists, and even students can spend hours each week scheduling and rescheduling. “Anybody who goes through that amount of pain will try to find a way to remove it,” Mortensen says.


X.ai illustrate the problem with arranging meetings and their solution to the trouble

To see Amy in action, users link the system to their calendar and CC amy@x.ai into emails in which meetings are discussed. Like a real life PA, Amy assumes control of the correspondence, scanning the user’s schedule and conversing with the contact to arrange an available spot for both parties. Once an agreeable date and time are set, Amy sends the user a calendar invite to confirm.

Amy officially launches late this summer, but according to X.ai users have so far been impressed with the beta version. Contacts on the receiving end of Amy’s message have also shown great interest. Mortensen told Business Insider an anecdote about Amy being sent flowers, chocolate, and whiskey as gifts. “She might have been flirted with a few times,” he added.

X.ai CEO and Founder Dennis Mortensen

X.ai CEO and Founder Dennis Mortensen

If the results of these impromptu Turing tests are true, it’s a great success for X.ai, which says its focused specifically on humanizing Amy. “The primary reasons for this are that you shouldn’t have to learn a specific syntax to use X.ai. and you should be able to communicate in the same language to your guests (humans) and your assistant (an AI),” Mortensen told Business Insider in another interview. However, Bloomberg Technology report suggests that not all of Amy’s correspondences were entirely automated. Many, in fact, may’ve been written by humans pretending to be an AI pretending to be a human. An ex-employee and “AI trainer” at X.ai told Bloomberg that he’d often sit in front of a computer for many hours on end, selecting phrases to evaluate Amy’s interpretation of emails. The startup doesn’t deny their use of AI trainers to support Amy’s services, but they insist that human involvement is supplementary.

As of April 2016, X.ai has been valued around $100 million, according to TechCrunch. When the product launches this summer the payment tiers will be freemium, or as Mortensen calls it, “Dropbox-style.”

To cement their spot in the market, X.ai is trying to make the best AI-driven PA – period. That way, as tech giants develop their software – with companies like Google and Facebook also likely to offer their services for free – Amy and X.ai will be so functional and intuitive that they hold a monopoly.

Speaking to Business Insider, Mortensen compares this to how Facebook got so far ahead in developing a massive social network that Google couldn’t easily or successfully enter the market. “Google can easily create a social network, but it’s too late,” he said. “Whoever gets there first, wins. And that’s why we raised more capital. I think we will get there first and I think we will own it.”

Imgae credit: Pixabay, X.ai