Imagine a future with no email

Katie Sadler bw
Posted: 01/03/2018

Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionize the way we work—radically eliminating tasks we’d rather not do, says x.ai’s Dennis Mortensen

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Photo by Xavier Massa on Unsplash

The struggles of office life are a timeless and enduring narrative for people all over the world—regardless of industry, job description or pay grade.

For instance, have you ever spent more than half an hour trying to schedule a meeting via email, only to have it cancelled at the last minute? Or felt the frustration of having to comb through your inbox to find that one tiny piece of information you thought you’d filed elsewhere?

For serial entrepreneur Dennis Mortensen, these are the kinds of struggles that make artificial intelligence an all-too-alluring gift for the future of our workforce.

The power of AI, Mortensen says, is to liberate us from the things we don’t want in our lives—like pointless email correspondence and the back and forth necessary to schedule meetings.

“We will finally get to do what we were hired to do,” says the CEO and founder of AI-powered personal assistant x.ai, when he recently sat down with AIIA editor Megan Wright.

AIIA Network (AIIA): Data and analytics is a passion of yours and a common thread that’s run the course of your career so far. Do you think we’ve reached peak data yet?

Dennis Mortensen (DM): Not by a stretch.  Most of the data we collect, we gather by deliberate choice—I want that piece of data, I’ve put some mechanism in place to collect it.

We’ve even had challenges figuring out what to do with the limited amount of data that we’ve collected.  Once we truly see sensors being embedded into everything, we will be drowning in data. So peak? No. We’re at the very beginning!

AIIA: Tell me about the relationship between big data and artificial intelligence?

DM: In the past I’ve participated in the idea of us as an enterprise just collecting data because we can, because we feel almost obligated to collect data.  It’s important to question what insights have been derived from the data, and if any actions were taken because of it.

Looking back at my own ventures, way back in the mid-90s, we analyzed data from analogue law files and three months later, after we’d found one or two nuggets of insight, we’d present it to the marketing or financial team. Words like real time just didn’t exist. 

Read more: It's 2018, let's talk about machine bias 

Then instead of hiring brilliant consultants to look at data and provide insight, we democratized this. In my second venture, we helped people collect their own data and slice and dice it using an interface. 

It is very easy to say, here’s a pool of data, jump in. But what do you do? Just because you have a pool of data doesn’t mean that you know what to do or how to analyze it. This created all sorts of new job functions —analysts and data scientists who made sense of the information. This was semi-democratized.  

“Just because you have a pool of data doesn’t mean that you know how to slice and dice it”

It was a struggle for businesses when they only received insight every three months. We provided a set of recommendations that jumped on to that data to help create decision support which was then actioned. This was certainly moving towards AI.

That brings me full circle. Now in AI systems you have this idea of having either a semi- or fully-autonomous agent that does things based on objectives you set, not tasks—not as in sum up this column or provide this segment or tell me how much my spend is or my click rate or my conversion.

AIIA: Explain to me how these sorts of semi- or fully-autonomous agents will impact the way we work with and interact with one another.

DM: In my latest venture, we delivered an agent that can schedule meetings. We all know how to set up meetings—one of us will send an invite, and then, we have to reschedule.  We start over and then we do it again.

We might not remember that there was a time where there was no online calendar, that’s an invention. Now we even have the ability to transpose one calendar on top of another to see that we are both free next Wednesday at 1pm.  

“I click send, I click archive.  Why?  This is not my job anymore, it’s Amy’s job”

What we’re trying to work on is the next step where I don’t even want to look at next Wednesday—I just want to meet you. For example, if you email me and say, “Dennis, I’m going to be in Manhattan in December, have you got time to meet up for a coffee?” I can reply back and say, “yes, I’m up for a coffee, I’ve cc’d in Amy [the agent], she can help put something in my calendar.”  I click Send, I click Archive.  Why?  This is not my job anymore, it’s Amy’s job. 

Read more: Will 2018 be the year of voice AI? 

I don’t know when you’re going to arrive in December, you don’t know where the office is, but that doesn’t matter because we have somebody working on it.  And that’s AI—where something goes from being you to being augmented or has helped do something a little bit faster, a little bit more accurate, to the entity or the system doing it by itself.

AIIA: With that in mind, what will the human workforce look like in the next ten to 20 years’ time?

DM: I think in the first wave, the next ten or 20 years, it will be so positive, we will finally get to do what we were hired to do.  If I’m an account manager I just want to speak to my customers, if I’m a recruiter I just want to speak to new candidates, if I’m an account executive I just want good leads that I can talk to. You should be able to do that job and that job only.  That’s certainly the first wave, and I’m super-optimistic.

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But what comes after that?  It’s not that we haven’t had a dream of spending less time at work.  Sam Keen suggested this over a hundred years ago and the whole software revolution was supposed to give us back time. Somehow that ended up never being the case but the promise was honest—it was just that the current software somehow didn’t allow for that. 

Perhaps this time around it will be different, such as leaving early on Thursdays because you’ve got seven agents employed to do all sorts of little chores for you.  Even if that is not the case perhaps joy will just increase ever so slightly because you do what you like to do. That’s the one side of it.

The other is when people write doomsday stories where they say, the clock is ticking and before you know it 20 million Americans will be unemployed because of AI. 

“I just don’t buy into it; every job is constantly being recycled”

Go back a hundred years, none of what we do today existed, why is there a belief that this time around there will be no new jobs? That seems so pessimistic to me.

AIIA: How do you impress upon leaders and senior executives the importance of artificial intelligence for the potential future of their business?

DM: It’s still early days. I do try to remind people that we are now ten years into the smartphone era. We went from nothing to really everybody, at least in the developed world, having a smartphone and doing real work on it in less than a decade. 

If you believe AI could be one of these paradigm shifts, and there are certainly enough people who suggest that it could be, then this is perhaps even bigger than the smartphone—it’s a whole new tech revolution.

What I usually recommend to leaders is to experiment because otherwise it just becomes too philosophical about some unknown future which we can’t really define.

AIIA: We speak to a lot of people in the startup space; you have been through this process successfully a few times now. What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

DM: Focus, really hyper-focus. Cut a slice so thin that even you are slightly in doubt whether this is a real market. Keep cutting because it can never be too small. Focus on solving one thing not a half-assed approach to five or six things. The world is your oyster, you can do whatever you want—so just hyper-focus.  Figure out how to do that one thing. 

Look at me: I don’t have 17 slides to explain what I do. I schedule meetings. End of page, no slide two. Just like Dropbox, what do they do?  They save files in the cloud.  I’m sure they have a really elaborate mission statement and they hate me for saying something that simple, but at the end of the day they just save files in the cloud. 

Focus! That’s the one thing I’ll tell myself.

Katie Sadler bw
Posted: 01/03/2018

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