Startups

The Startups (Possibly) Threatened By Google’s Newfound Voice

Google has always been smart. And now, Google is articulate. Google Assistant, powered by Google Duplex, is so well spoken that it can book appointments over the phone, complete with appropriate human-like filler words.

It’s an impressive implementation of Google’s AI efforts, recently demonstrated at Google’s annual I/O developer conference. But this coherent Assistant isn’t welcome by everyone. Startups that have found niches in automating mundane yet necessary tasks, like negotiating open times on a calendar or setting up an appointment, may feel the chill that comes from being under Google’s shadow.

Here are a few prominent startups that operate in the AI scheduling space that may have watched the Google I/O event with less wonder and more concern than most.

AI Assistants

Founded in 2014, X.ai’s “Amy” schedules calendar appointments via email. The AI software can handle negotiating time on your calendar all the way through creating the event and sending the invite.

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To do this, the startup has raised a total of $44.3 million. Its last round, a $10 million extension of its $23 million Series B, was announced on August 14, 2017.

While X.ai is one of the more well-funded virtual assistants on our shortlist, it does not offer calendar or appointment scheduling over voice. Instead, X.ai works strictly through email. Also unlike Google, X.ai cannot subsidize its algorithms off ad revenue. To CC Amy in your emails for appointment scheduling, the service starts at $17 per month. (X.ai did not respond to a request for comment.)

Beyond merely automated email scheduling are two startups that rely heavily rely on artificial intelligence and natural language processing: Zoom.ai, which has raised a known total of $5.2 million, and Interactions, which has raised a total $162.8 million. Interactions is the only startup mentioned here that appears to have AI sophisticated enough to handle natural voice scheduling. But while the startup offers voice scheduling solutions, Interactions example call now sounds stunted compared to what Google recently demoed with Assistant.

However, not all startups are strictly using AI to complete tasks. A few startups are embracing the men and women behind the algorithms, allowing for more complicated tasks to be completed.

Humans Are Still Useful

Two startups that have chosen to embrace humans completing tasks when necessary are Fin and Magic.

Located in San Francisco, Magic is an “SMS based on-demand personal assistant service,” according to Crunchbase. The startup, which includes Sequoia Capital and Y Combinator among its investor ranks, has raised a total of $12.1 million. And while the startup does openly embrace AI to make routine tasks easier, its website copy clearly embraces its humanity, stating that its team of assistants “are college grads and full-time employees with benefits.” So far, Magic’s CEO, Mike Chen, believes this is enough to set it apart from Google Assistant’s ability to schedule appointments.

“People utilize Magic instead of hiring part-time or full-time employees. At its current stage, Google Assistant is not good enough to replace someone’s need for that level of work,” Chen told Crunchbase News. “I see it as being a good entry point for someone to learn about what it’s like to have an assistant, and when they are ready for something more comprehensive, they should use Magic instead.”

Fin operates much the same way. Founded by Facebook alum Sam Lessin and Venmo co-founder Andrew Kortina, Fin employs AI to help speed up tasks, but it never strays too far from a heartbeat to get the more complicated tasks done. However, it is interesting to note that a cursory look at many of the tasks that users ask Fin to complete (viewable on its homepage) would also be very accomplishable by Google’s latest demo of Assistant.

Believe it or not, however, there are very successful companies who hardly rely on lines of code, much less AI, to handle tasks like setting up appointments. Ruby Receptions, a Portland, Oregon-based company, makes it a selling point that friendly (and human) voices will always answer the phone.1 But, as it turns out, human friendliness can be replicated. Who would mind negotiating calendar appointments with Google Assistant if it sounded like a cheery John Legend?

It’s almost certain that Google has the talent, drive, and money to continue expanding AI into human lives more naturally than ever before. If you would have told me a year ago Google Assistant would be able to book a hair appointment, and sound natural doing it, I would of had my doubts. Hopefully, these startups are not as doubtful about the progress of AI as I was.

  1. When I first moved to Oregon, Ruby Receptions offered me office space during my first few weeks in town. It was very appreciated.
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