Opinion
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Does This Robot Make My Face Look Fat?

Exploring human reactions to AI office assistants.

Does This Robot Make My Face Look Fat?

If you’ve found yourself in the world of AI, machine learning, and all related advancements, perhaps you’ve come to understand the role algorithms play in our lives. The further you go into algorithms, the more you see the patterns already scripted and those yet to be.

For those who may be a little hazy about the term, an algorithm is a set of rules structured to be followed, typically in computers. But many people find themselves living inside social “rules” and having them become larger patterns in life. And our lives eventually become a series of algorithms with occasional breaks in the code. An annual vacation can even become an algorithm if you keep going to the same place, doing the same things, and ordering the same food at the same restaurants. We become a series of code—mere robots moving through life.

And as we become robots, the robots are becoming human.

OK, I admit it: I’ve hired a robot. Actually, a brother-sister team, Amy and Andrew Ingram (AI for short). Their “parents” are New York-based tech startup x.ai. Amy and Andrew are software, not physical robots, and they are designed to help with scheduling. All I do is copy them on a meeting email, and they find time on my calendar for coffee. Yes, there’s some training time to get them up to speed on my patterns (learning my algorithms) and then it’s off to the scheduling races.

They came into my life because one of my colleagues was fooled by a competing AI scheduler named Clara. She emailed the robot, saying, “Keep warm,” thinking Clara was a real person. After we laughed a bit, the realization came rushing in: That scheduling bot passed what’s known as the Turing test, which measures a computer’s ability to exhibit human behavior. (For more context, see the movie The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing.)

The mixture of fear and curiosity that many us feel when considering AI is an emotional cocktail all too familiar to me; human fear blends with marketer’s curiosity. For me, robots stir up the same potpourri of emotions with a sprinkle of paranoia.

So, what do I do when I’m looking at fear and curiosity?  I confront it and employ it. Once you hire robots, you need to onboard them, much as you would a human assistant. When and where do you like to take meetings? Do you prefer a call or meet in person? For coffee, lunch, or happy hour? Best times? Favorite meeting spots? Then you let them practice, making sure to tell people your “robot” is handling the scheduling for this meeting. After a handful of those dry runs, you move to AI-assisted scheduling without telling people; you just copy Amy or Andrew on an email and they take care of the details.

For just under $10 per month—the cost of Amy and Andrew’s services—you have removed an annoying, time-consuming task. Almost.

Two weeks into Amy and Andrew’s tenure, a close friend who once ran a billion-dollar division of a local Fortune 50 called the office asking to speak with Amy Ingram. The office had to inform him that Amy isn’t a person, but a robot. (So the Ingrams aren’t flawless—they can be coy about being robots, and sometimes they can be a bit pushy if a human doesn’t respond promptly.) Three months into the job, Amy and Andrew had filled my calendar with 30 to 40 meetings, and a solid 75 percent of my guests never noticed they were robots.

When it was revealed, as an interesting start to a conversation, people reacted much as I had. It turns out this isn’t always a good way to start a meeting with colleagues, friends, or potential clients. People informed me their human admin wasn’t pleased with my robot admin, so for six months, the Ingrams were sent away on hiatus.

But the future is here, and managing my calendar was still painful. So I eased the Ingrams back into work. We’re now 18 months into this experiment, and the Ingrams have found their place in the Capsule team, scheduling the occasional meeting and handling those situations where our human schedulers are overbooked.

So what should you know about AI scheduling assistants and the future of mundane tasks?

  1. Robots are here, and they are taking over the monotonous, ordinary, and algorithm-like work in our lives.
  2. We will need to work through our relationship with robots. They will replace jobs that humans once had, but they’ll also create new ones in areas where non-algorithmic thinking is required.
  3. If your schedule looks like mine on any given day, AI software can help relieve the painful back-and-forth to find a time “that works for both of us.”
  4. Humans are not robots, even though the manufacturing process of Henry Ford attempted to convince us otherwise. So let’s stop the monotony and do something different. Starting now, break one pattern in your life.

Reach out if you’d like to break an algorithm code together. I’ll even schedule it myself.

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us)is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.

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