Hate scheduling meetings? Let robots do the work

They promised me a robot.

I’m not sure who “they” are and when I was promised this, but I’ve read a lot of science fiction in my life and I know that by 2015, I damn well should have my own robot.

I love it when I get what I’m promised.

Okay, Andrew Ingram isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think “robot.” No shiny metal mechs or creepy android head tilts and smiles. In fact, I’ve never seen Andrew, but he’s one of the most indispensable parts of my work life—just like any good assistant is.

Andrew Ingram schedules meetings for me. That’s it. That’s all he does. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Artificial intelligence (A.I., as in Andrew’s initials) will either give rise to Skynet or co-exist in equanimity with humans, as in Iain Banks’ Culture series. So I’m pretty content with Andrew’s control over my calendar. He seeks no other control, and actually refuses it whenever I cross over the line of what he is built for. (Andrew has an older sister, Amy, but for obvious reasons I choose to use her younger sibling. Far less confusing to have only one Amy in the conversation.)

So why put all this brain power into something as simple as scheduling a meeting? Because it’s one of the biggest pain points in both professional and personal life.

Think about the last time you tried to schedule a meeting with another busy person in your business. How many emails went back and forth? How many different time suggestions had to be made? What about if something else got put on your calendar between the time you originally sent suggestions and when the person got back to you?

Sometimes it can be even worse in our personal lives. I just finally got together for dinner with three friends—it took us almost five months to find a mutually agreeable date. I’m not even joking. From the time we first talked about it, to the time we sat down at the table, more than four months had passed.

“How to automate calendaring has been around a good 10 years,” says Owen Davis, founder of Overlap, another service competing in the A.I. scheduling space. “It’s a big problem area, and an idea that a few people have been thinking about and care about.”

Interim solutions, such as Tungle (bought and eventually sunsetted by Blackberry) and Schedule Once, have enabled people to set up an external calendar that’s synced with their own, so people can go to it and select a few times that work. It was a great middle step, but it still required both people to have to do an awful lot of looking at their calendars and figuring out where to meet. It wasn’t completely seamless.

A.I. solutions such as x.ai and Overlap are, almost.

“We operate with this idea of Invisible Software, in which you know there is technology being applied, but you don’t see it,” says x.ai founder and CEO Dennis Mortensen. “Just as Google’s self-driving cars need to avoid accidents, we need to make sure Michelle doesn’t end up sitting in a coffee shop while you are dialed into a conference line. We’re damn close.”

Davis says the problem is both simple and complex.

“It really is only time, space, and location,” he says. “That’s huge. That’s unbelievable to get a machine to understand all that happens in that tiny little space.”

Colloquialisms, time zones, similarly-named locations—all make the issue of scheduling meetings far more complex than it would seem.

One of Overlap’s plans is to become a seamless tool for scheduling internal meetings in a company—if five people need to be there and all their calendars are on the company Overlap account, no one actually has to look at their own calendar to figure out what time or day works, Davis says. Adding in the need for certain office supplies (a whiteboard) or documents (in Dropbox), the tool could completely plan a meeting with just the basic information from the person scheduling it.

Mortensen sees a similar future with x.ai—if two people need to meet and both use Amy or Andrew, the entire meeting can be scheduled without any back and forth from either of them. Ask Amy, and the meeting magically appears on both calendars—“scheduling nirvana,” as Mortensen calls it.

All I know is that I’ve saved dozens upon dozens of hours by using Andrew Ingram to schedule my meetings over the past several months. And a couple friends were even fooled when I told them my A.I. scheduling assistant was going to set up the meeting. They assumed I meant Artificial Intelligence, then thought they must have misunderstood when Andrew was so polite, so human.

I guess I got my robot.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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