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I hired a virtual PA for a week and barely anyone noticed she was a machine



It's unusual to meet a journalist who has their own personal assistant. I've never met one. So I was well aware of the task I had ahead of me convincing my friends, colleagues, and contacts that I now had a PA.

And, I didn't even really have a PA. For a week, I decided to try out "Amy Ingram," a virtual PA designed to schedule meetings for busy executives, by taking away all the e-mail ping-pong that goes with organizing a rendezvous.

In practice, all you need to do is link your calendars and then CC "Amy Ingram/amy@x.ai" into an e-mail conversation about setting up a meeting. She then takes over, chats to your contact like a real PA to sort the best time and location, and the next thing you should expect to see is a calendar invite.

Dennis Mortensen, the CEO of the company that created Amy Ingram, x.ai, told me earlier this month that some people have been so convinced she is human, they've even sent her flowers, whiskey, and chocolates.

I had to try it out for myself.

The set-up

It all began with a friendly "hi."


I felt compelled to be polite back. "Hi Amy, nice to meet you. I hate meetings before 11AM — so please try to avoid those as I am usually busy in the mornings. Thank you, Lara."

I had to scold myself: She's not real! Yet it felt odd constructing an email with only the most basic of information, eschewing any sort of salutation. 

Connecting my calendars took just a couple of clicks as I was already signed into my Google accounts.

I was ready. Amy was ready. I had reached the big time.

A rocky start

The first meeting Amy attempted to arrange was via a PR I have known for years. I casually dropped Amy into our e-mail conversation.


Chris was baffled.


So was Amy.


But, Amy: We hadn't decided yet! We were just trying to carve out a time slot! We can sort the finer details later! 

OK Amy, just this once. 

I sent an email asking Chris where we should meet. He replied back with a vague location. I responded asking for the exact address. He sent me the address. I forwarded it over to Amy.

It was starting to feel a lot like email ping-pong.

I didn't hear any more from either of them until two days later. Chris emailed:


Chris hadn't been replying to Amy's polite emails attempting to suggest a time. Instead, he had gone ahead and sorted the meeting himself. The (human) PA of the person I was due to be meeting sent me a calendar invite. Eventually, Chris got back to Amy to let her know it had all been set up without her.

Sure enough, Amy let me know too.


But continuing to use Amy actually made me better at organizing meetings

coffee shopMy first experience using Amy was far from seamless. But it highlighted the biggest mistake I didn't even know I was making when I try to set up meetings myself: I'm not specific enough from the outset. And that's why the email ping-pong occurs.

I asked Mortensen — Amy's creator — for some advice. He suggested I email Amy letting her know my favorite places for breakfast, coffee, lunch, and also my default meeting types: like phone calls, or at my office.

I don't really have a "default." One of the best things about being a journalist is you get to explore other people's offices and different parts of the city. Fortunately, Mortensen said I can also tell Amy that the location is "TBD."

From there on in, organizing meetings became a breeze. Those who didn't know me too well didn't question the fact that I was adding Amy into our conversations. Those who did were just as incredulous as Chris. One contact responded: "Well if I’d known you had people I would have got my people to speak to your people."

Later, I had to admit to a confused contact I had known all my career that I merely had a "virtual PA."

His response: a "HAL" reference:


Nevertheless, despite not being human, Amy was very realistic. Even when meetings needed to be rescheduled (from my end, or theirs,) Amy seemed to understand, and the next email I'd see from her would be an updated calendar invite.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not the best at managing my inbox, and can often miss emails. My worst habit is "starring" emails and then forgetting to look at them later. Having Amy on board gave me reassurance that I wasn't letting things slide.

Usefully, she would also send me a copy of the conversations she had been having with my colleagues, so I could keep tabs on her. Amy also forwarded me a weekly meeting summary. She said she had scheduled seven meetings for me, adding: "I can happily say that there are no outstanding tasks."

Putting Amy to the test

It was difficult to resist having a little fun. I wondered whether Amy would respond to a general chit-chat email that had nothing to do with setting up meetings.


And what about an "important business meeting" with a friend?


Amy responded with a calendar invite from 5pm to 8pm on the evening I requested. Oh Amy, you don't know me at all.

Would Amy pass probation?

alarm clockMy biggest issue using Amy was her erratic response times. Sometimes meetings would be sorted in minutes flat. Other times — particularly if emailed her in the morning (GMT) — she could take hours to respond. I mentioned this to my Friday night pub friend, and he became immediately suspicious (pub friends like to conspire) that Amy might be more human than she was letting on and I was simply waiting for a real person in the US to wake up and deal with my scheduling.

That thought quickly exited my head, though: X.ai has raised more than $11 million in funding to date, with a $40 million valuation, and Mortensen is a long-time data analytics entrepreneur. He sold his company Visual Revenue to Outbrain, was the COO of Indextools when it sold to Yahoo, and he sold his other company Canvas Interactive to TJ Group. 

I asked him why Amy was sometimes a little tardy. He responded:

We are moving towards a setting where Amy is near instant, but even in her current incarnation she tends to beat most human assistants in response time and working days (given her 24/7 machine setting). However, things can get queued up for multiple reasons, mostly due to verification needed or simply waiting for response on either Guest or Host side, but also due to potential response ambiguity (for her). We operate in a supervised learning environment where we go for accuracy over speed, to ensure high quality in our training data (and product). So a sentence or simple time expression might be pulled aside and that delays things a bit. All while building this verticalized AI.

Another bugbear I had with Amy was her email signature: 


It's a bit of a giveaway! People might question my new (artificial) elevated status! (Mortensen says the paid-for version of Amy Ingram will allow for customization of the email signature.)

And, ultimately, that "status" was my main issue with using Amy. I am busy, and I do set up lots of meetings, but I'm certainly not an executive. I'm sure many of the people requesting meetings with me last week (and didn't notice the email signature) thought I was getting a little ahead of myself — or that Business Insider had some serious cash to burn, and was giving its section editors their own personal lackeys.

So I probably won't continue using Amy, and it'll be bittersweet saying goodbye as she was very efficient. However, I'd recommend her to actual executives (thousands of executives are already using Amy Ingram, including former Havas CEO David Jones, now the owner of You & Mr Jones.) And despite Amy not being an actual person, she's taught me a valuable lesson about being a lot more organized and specific from the outset when it comes to arranging meetings.

x.ai is currently in beta. You can sign up to the waiting list here.

SEE ALSO: People are sending flowers and chocolate to thank personal assistant 'Amy Ingram' — what they don't realize is she's a robot

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