Chasing Andrew

Adventures with my AI personal assistant

I signed up to the waiting list about a year ago. I was visiting Craig and Kanyi at the Collaborative Fund in New York and Craig had simply copied ‘Amy’ into our emails to sort out the details. I noticed the strange email address straight away and did some digging. Amy it turned out was an artificial assistant created by New York based company The process worked without a hitch and I remember thinking how unremarkable the whole experience was.

Even though I knew Amy was an AI, I remember feeling that I should be polite to her. I generally make a point of thanking all the PAs who arrange meetings with other people for me and treat them in the way I would treat the person I’m meeting. It was hard to shake that habit.

Fast forward nine months and I got the email saying that I could now use Amy too as the beta trial grew. I’d actually forgotten I’d signed up (nobody else I’d met had been using in the period between), but I quickly clicked on the link and went through the very simple setup process of sharing calendars and answering some basic questions about common types of meeting (how long they should be, favourite locations etc). I also got to choose whether I wanted Amy or Andrew and decided on Andrew.

Then I got a bit stuck. It was not so much that I’d never had an AI personal assistant before — I’d never had a personal assistant at all.

Before trying it out on others I felt I needed to give it a quick test so sent my colleague Vicky at BGV an email suggesting we go for a coffee and that Andrew (cc’d) could arrange a time. Now Vicky in a past life used to be an executive assistant so I thought she might be intrigued. In fact she was just rude and deliberately awkward making Andrew’s task all the more difficult by changing her mind and suggesting venues that she knew wouldn’t work. Andrew gave up and politely ‘reverted this one back to me’.

Next I tried letting him organise a few phone calls that weren’t time sensitive and Andrew did fine. Then a few coffees, which also went fine. I didn’t ever use it for my social life — that would seem a bit weird to me — and if it was a really important meeting I still did it myself.

I did a bit of maths and realised scheduling takes about 5-10% of my working day so anything that can reduce that is very valuable. It’s also a real drag — even the PAs I know would rather do more valuable things if they could so my feeling at the moment is that is creating job displacement rather than job replacement.

Most people I meet who have interacted with Andrew want to talk about it and they usually only have positive things to say. A couple of people didn’t notice that he’s an AI at all and a lot of people have asked if I can get them bumped up the waiting list (I can’t).

I’m not sure whether I’ll go all in and let Andrew organise all my meetings. It’s going to take a bit of getting used to but the barriers are more human and social (what other people think) than technological. It’s not quite ‘Her’ or ‘Ex Machina’ but it does feel like the future, albeit in a very mundane way.

Where Tech for Good Ideas Come From

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a panel of BGV founders at the South London Tech Meetup and asked them — “where did the idea for your social venture come from?”.

It turned out that each founder had a story that matched one of the three sources of inspiration I’ve heard other people talk about so, as it’s also BGV applications season, I thought I’d write a little bit about them.

The first type of inspiration is frustration. Mark from Konnektis explained how when his grandfather was ill and needed care he was amazed to see how inefficiently the various people involved in domiciliary care communicated with one another. This frustration with the status quo and a completely obvious (to Mark at least) technology-based solution made him want to start the business.

Secondly, there’s the combination of two seemingly unconnected ideas. For Natalie from Walacea this was the realisation that two things she was super interested in — scientific research and crowdfunding — hadn’t yet been brought together. When she realised that there could be value in the combination, Walacea was a obvious innovation that needed to exist.

Finally there’s chemistry when inspiration for a venture comes from two or more people coming together in conversation. For Dan from Firesouls that happened by meeting a co-founder with a very different background to him who listened to the problem he described and then played it back based on his way of thinking. The resulting idea could never have come about without both of their perspectives — neither person had the whole story.

Most of the tech for good founder stories I know fit into these three categories or are combinations of them. If I’ve missed something please do let me know. But if you’re looking to start a venture, there is something else you can do — be open to talking with others about it.

The title of this post is a blatant rip-off of Steven Johnson’s excellent book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ in which he looks at the origins of thousands of inventions and ideas that have changed our society. He dispels the myth that inventions come from secretive labs or lone geniuses — instead he argues that “chance favours the connected mind”, most great ideas come from connecting existing ones and that the network age gives us more opportunities than ever before to build on ideas and create new ones.

Speaking of which, if you have a great idea for a tech for good venture, applications for BGV Autumn 2016 are now open!