Co-founders of mimetic.ai Jin Hian Lee (left) and Praveen Velu created AI scheduling assistant Evie. Photo credit: mimetic.ai
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
In the science fiction television series Humans, set in a parallel present, anthropomorphic robots called Synths operate as home help and are accepted as a normal part of society. While our reality has not yet reached that point, artificial intelligence (AI) is developing quickly and being applied in more fields.
Evie, a software that uses AI for schedule planning via email, communicates so much like a human that people have routinely shown up at offices that are using the software convinced they have a meeting with her. “When it comes to scheduling, she communicates the way a human would: making the same kinds of logical decisions about dates and locations, and communicating that information. We put in a great deal of thought in designing those interactions so that they feel natural, as if you were dealing with another person,” explained Praveen Velu, a co-founder of technology start-up mimetic.ai, which started commercialising Evie in November 2016.
“We’ve heard many stories about how people have mistaken her for an actual human person. For example, one venture capitalist showed up for dinner with an entrepreneur in Korea, who had made a reservation for three, thinking that Evie would also be joining her boss,” he said. “Another executive showed up at a banking conference and found that the organisers had prepared a pass for Evie thinking that she would also be attending!”
Built using deep learning technology, Evie helps its users automatically organise meetings, acting like a personal assistant, independently corresponding with other parties. The user sends an initial email initiating a meeting (physical or online/virtual) and only has to include Evie in the CC field for the software to take over. Evie will negotiate a suitable time based on each participant’s Google or Office 365 calendar, calculating the optimal working hours and adjusting for different time zones as necessary. Evie then sends reminders, including relevant information like the full address of a meeting place, skype details of participants, and can also book a meeting room.
Set up by two former Yahoo! colleagues, mimetic.ai is the latest Singapore firm to enter the potentially lucrative AI market. According to market research firm IDC, the worldwide market for cognitive/AI solutions will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 55.1% between 2016 and 2020, with revenues set to rise to more than US$47 billion in 2020.
The report estimates nearly half of all cognitive/AI revenue will go to software, which includes both cognitive applications (such as text and rich media analytics, tagging, searching, question answering, and visualisation) and cognitive software platforms.
In a business setting, assistants could be viewed as an expensive solution only available to top management, in which case Praveen argued Evie can help save time and money. He said, “Based on our data, one meeting requires an average of 4.2 email exchanges to set up. If you take 10 meetings a week, that’s 42 emails. If each email takes five minutes to write (including checking calendar), that’s 3.5 hours a week. Based on an annual salary of S$60,000, you’re paying an employee S$5,000 to schedule meetings. By comparison, Evie costs only S$240.”
He added that savings could be higher in certain parts of the business, like sales, business development or recruitment functions, which tend to arrange more meetings.
“Another (and more nefarious) cost we don’t account for is the cost of cognitive switching. If I’m engaged in work that requires focus, being pulled away to respond to an email about a meeting or some other administrative task takes me out of focus and I lose time trying to regain that state of focus after dealing with the distraction. All of these add up to make the workday longer yet less productive,” he noted.
Evie could eventually be extended to other platforms like Facebook and other tasks, such as bookings and reservations. However, Praveen said that developers must first get the fundamentals of understanding natural language interactions and decision making right. “Scheduling is a very hard problem to crack and that is what we are laser-focused on. We shouldn’t try to run before we can walk fast. With scheduling, we can teach Evie not only natural language interaction, but also something about constraints, like time and space. When you have these fundamentals right, you can then go on to tackle some other timewasters, such as travel and expense filing.”
For mimetic.ai, the promise of AI is not just semi-automation of mundane tasks, but developing machines that will be able to work autonomously, finally freeing humans to perform the higher order tasks that only human cognition can do.
“The era of humans learning to communicate with machines is at an end. Evie, essentially a digital AI employee who speaks and understands humans, is the future. With nothing to learn or download, everyone can now harness the power of AI to get the job done,” said Jin Hian Lee, the other co-founder of mimetic.ai.