Tech Tips

Connected Life: Are Computerized Assistants Ready for Prime Time?

In today’s world, some executives still have administrative staff, but more and more don’t. Plenty actually never did. Which means the administrative details of work and personal life falls back on each of us. While technology is supposed to make work/life balance easy and seamless, anyone who’s been through a 10-email-round-robin to try to schedule or reschedule a meeting knows that’s not true. Even worse, sometimes technology doesn’t get all the details to all the right people at once—the calendar doesn’t sync. The email gets buried under an onslaught of hundreds of competing messages. You show up at the right time and place but spend 10 minutes in the lobby searching through your email for the suite number. The end result? You miss an important meeting, stand up a prospective client, or just fail to create a promising relationship. Or forget to pay the bill, or get a present for the birthday party your kid’s attending this weekend.

We’re all looking for better, faster, simpler ways to manage administrative chaos. You might have heard of busy executives using a VA—a virtual assistant. The idea got a lot of press a few years ago when Tim Ferriss published The 4-Hour Workweek, a book that focused on a number of strategies and shortcuts that technology makes possible. Ferriss wrote about how he’d hired an administrative assistant to manage his administrative tasks. But instead hiring an employee who’d sit in his office all day, Ferriss hired chunks of time from people all over the world, using them for specific tasks when he needed them.

Today, some tech companies are taking the idea of virtual assistants to their logical extreme—creating smart bots and apps that can handle tasks like scheduling meetings.

One solution in beta right now: Amy, from Sign up, and you can copy a bot named Amy on correspondence to set up a meeting. Amy checks your calendar and suggests times to your correspondent, then sends an invite to you both. There are still some emails going back and forth, but you don’t have to do the work of comparing your calendar to 15 different times your colleague proposes.

Some solutions only feel like a virtual assistant, but they can still be pretty magic. If you have the Google app (free on Android and iOS), you can turn on the Google Now service in the app’s settings, and it can give you travel tips (leave home at 7:25a to arrive at work on time due to heavy traffic today), let you create your own reminders, and (if you let it access your mail and search history) recommend stories around the Internet it thinks you’ll like. In many ways, though, Google Now is just an extension of the rest of the information you’re probably already managing in that service, but it does pull the info together in a helpful way.

Sunrise App
Sunrise App

If you’re struggling to manage all the different notices and reminders you have to deal with every day, several next-gen calendar apps may be able to help. Sunrise and 24me pull together multiple calendar, email, and social media accounts, for instance. But if you’re using Google mail or Outlook today, you’ve already got the ability to check your calendar for conflicts inside an emailed event invite. One of the things we’ve found when using the apps that pull everything into one spot is that we aren’t necessarily bad at managing the details — we may just have too much information passing through our hands every day. Figuring out how to reduce the information firehose is more complex than pulling all your reminders and appointments into one place.

If you’re ready to truly go virtual, you’ll want to follow the news about Facebook conducting a limited beta test for M, its new virtual assistant. Based on press reports at this point, it seems like they’re still working on programming and training the service, which has only launched to a few hundred Facebook Messenger users in the San Francisco area. But initial reports about the service make it sound like Facebook aims to create a far more comprehensive service, going far beyond Siri’s or Cortana’s ability to answer factual questions and process calendar updates or sent a text, and diving into completing a wide range of tasks for users.

We’re not quite to the point of the Star Trek computer—in The Next Generation series, Star Trek officers would demand complex information or “tea, Earl Grey, hot!” and get an immediate response—but Amazon’s Echo device can give you a lot of the virtual assistant experience when you’re stationary. Also sometimes called Alexa, the name of the virtual assistant inside, the Echo device responds to voice commands on a wide range of activities from playing music to reading you a book to ordering a pizza. You can’t stick it in your pocket or bag like a smartphone, but it may make fixing dinner more fun with an impromptu dance party, control your smart home devices, or even let your kids get the weather info easily themselves instead of bugging you to use your phone while you’re trying to get ready in the morning.

It seems likely we’ll continue to see lots of development in this space the next few years. Major tech players are investing lots of money in voice recognition, virtual reality, hearables, and wearables. Except for the food replicator, the Star Trek computer experience may not be too far away.