How AI Personal Assistants Will Fill Secretarial Duties
Remember the days when a flight attendant used to be called a stewardess and first class looked like a scene out of the 1970s version of the Playboy mansion? Some might call it nostalgia, while others might leverage charges (metaphorically and literally) of sexism. However, this train of thought got us to thinking: When did secretaries become known as administrative assistants? And, more importantly for our readers, when will secretaries—er, admins—be replaced by AI-powered personal assistants?
Many in the media, including us, have speculated about what jobs robots and AI will do in the future. Certainly, much of what an administrative assistant does today relies heavily on computers and software. But can the job, or at least significant parts of it, be automated by what the industry calls AI personal assistants or bots? As we’ve already noted, a lot of back office work and front office customer relations jobs are being automated, usually through some form of AI or at least sophisticated software packages. There are nearly four million jobs that fall into the general category of secretaries and administrative assistants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS predicts slow job growth ahead at 3 percent between 2014 and 2024.
AI Personal Assistants to Replace Secretaries
Let’s take a look at some of the key duties expected of today’s admin and what startups are doing with AI personal assistants and other software to accelerate the decline of what was once the most important person in any office:
- Coordinate appointments
- Take meeting notes
- Manage email
- Organize files
- Produce reports
New York-based x.ai is the best funded startups in our secretary pool. Founded in 2014, the company has raised more than $34 million, the most recent a $23 million Series B last April. It’s got some serious investors in its corner, including IA Ventures, Firstmark, Two Sigma Ventures, SoftBank Capital, DCM Ventures and Pritzker Group. TechCrunch reports from “reliable sources” that x.ai is valued at around $100 million.
The company has created a specialized AI personal assistant named Amy (or Andrew) who coordinates all of your emails for you. Simply cc Amy on the first email volley and she’ll take care of the rest. Apparently the interaction is so real that Amy has been sexually harassed asked out on more than a few dates. In February, x.ai released its “business edition” targeted for enterprise-wide use at $59 per user. Last year, x.ai introduced its first paid subscription, the professional edition at $39. A free version, with a long wait list, is limited to five meetings per month. The business edition provides some additional perks like a dashboard that offers an overview of meetings scheduled. It also allows customers to add Amy or Andrew’s email to their own company’s domain.
A Singapore-based copy of x.ai, Mimetic calls its AI personal assistant Evie but the same concept applies. Backers to the modest startup (at last report the company had six employees) is SeedPlus, an early stage investment firm launched by Singapore-based VC firm Jungle Ventures last year, according to TechCrunch. Mimetic employs natural language processing, a mixture of algorithms, and some reasoning and decision-making to process all that user data and help Evie react correctly to situations, Tech in Asia reported. Currently, the company offers a monthly service for $19.99 if you pay annually. That’s probably less than your admin’s coffee bill in a week.
In San Francisco, Clara Labs offers similar services to x.ai but at executive admin prices. It raised $5 million in a second Seed VC round last October, cobbled together from a large number of investors, including actor Jared Leto. Reports indicate Clara Labs secured about $3 to $4 million in funding from Sequoia Capital in 2014. Its subscriptions for an AI personal assistant range from $99 to $399, and even the most expensive option doesn’t buy you unlimited access to Clara.
Silicon Valley startup Genee, which had developed a similar AI personal assistant to others in this space, got a golden ticket last year when Microsoft acquired the company for an undisclosed amount, presumably to leverage the technology for its Microsoft 365 platform.
Take meeting notes
Just to prove that not all tech startups are biased, Clarke.ai calls its artificial intelligence platform for taking notes during meetings and phone calls Clarke (are you sensing a trend here, Clara?). Largely a two-man operation and founded in August 2016, Clarke.ai is a true shoestring startup, raising a $120,000 Convertible Note last month. The cost for someone else to take notes for you? Priceless. The user simply invites Clarke to join any conference call. Clarke then emails a concise set of notes about the day’s meetings. The information can be pushed to any sort of collaboration tool such as Asana or Salesforce. You can even send an email to your assigned Clarke.ai email address and Clarke will respond just like a human. So, for example, if you wanted more information about a certain part of the meeting, just ask Clarke. SnapMunk reported that monthly plans range from $10 to $40 and that current users include individuals to boutique firms to enterprises such as SAP and Deloitte.
Email was the greatest invention of all time—until it wasn’t. A busy executive can get hundreds of messages a day. It’s the job of the admin to prioritize and organize an overflowing inbox. Or there’s the solution offered by Knowmail, an Israeli-based startup that collected $3.5 million in venture capital last December, led by CE Ventures. That brings its total investments to date to $4.7 million since it was found in 2014. Knowmail is an AI personal assistant for Outlook.
It learns your email habits and preferences and delivers important messages as needed. It would seem that Knowmail is really aligning itself with the Microsoft ecosystem, with the intention of integrating its AI with Microsoft’s version of Siri called Cortana.
There’s perhaps no task more emblematic of the secretary than filing paperwork. In the digital age, much of the paperwork exists online, and with Silicon Valley startup FileThis that means offering a document-as-a-service business model. FileThis is backed by about $3.4 million, most recently taking on $650,000 in debt financing in December 2016. Originally launched as a way to manage personal finances, FileThis is also used by small businesses for bookkeeping. It offers three plans, with the most expensive only $5 a month, which allows users to connect up to 30 accounts that they can track using a dashboard.
A more robust filing system comes from Germany-based filee. It allows users to digitize paperwork using a mobile app and to connect its services with email accounts, as well as cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive. The platform recognizes information like sender and dollar amounts, which it uses to organize documents. It can even link that data to your calendar when it recognizes important dates, such as due dates for bills. The service is free but for $4 a month you can unlock more features such as the ability to upload additional documents and to download full text PDFs.
Writing reports has to rank right up there with organizing files. But surely a computer can’t write, right? Unfortunately for every journalist on the planet, it turns out that AI has turned its sinister intelligence to the proverbial paper and pen. As we highlighted in our article on natural language generation, startups like Narrative Science are using artificial intelligence to write everything from news articles to business reports. At its simplest, NLG analyzes data to produce language, so those TPS reports that are due to the douchebag executive by Monday morning can now be generated in seconds. Research firm CB Insights likes Narrative Science so much it named the Chicago-based startup to its top 100 Artificial Intelligence list earlier this year. Narrative Science has raised about $30 million in funding.
Will robots and AI send nearly four million secretaries and admins to the unemployment lines? Our bet is no—at least not yet. Someone will need to manage the digital workflow produced by AI personal assistants and other smart office applications. The buzzword phrase these days when talking about the impending job upheaval is that admins will now be free for “value-added tasking.” We suspect those who will be successful will be the ones who embrace the new technology rather than cling to Xcel spreadsheets and SharePoint—and that precious red stapler.
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