Dennis Mortensen of X.ai: Artificial Intelligence is Driving the Rise of Virtual Agents


I’ve been using the Amazon Echo device for almost a year. And most of what I do is ask Alexa — the virtual assistant in Echo — what the weather is, who won the Rams game, add batteries to my shopping list, or even to play the new song from Prince.

I also use Siri to dial people on my iPhone when I’m in the car.  And, with Windows 10, I’m beginning to ask Cortana — Microsoft’s virtual assistant — for stuff as well.

More and more, we’re all using intelligent agents/services to handle routine things that take up time.  

Dennis Mortensen, co-founder of X.ai — the service behind virtual scheduling assistant Amy — shares why he feels we’re at the tipping point with artificial intelligence.  He also shares his vision of a world where services like Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Amy will work together on our behalf to free us up from mundane tasks and allow us to focus on more important things.



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Artificial IntelligenceSmall Business Trends: Maybe you can give us a little bit of your personal background.

Dennis: I’ve spent the last 20-some odd years doing four unique, tech ventures in the data space.  The last venture, which we spent now short of two years on, is x.ai.  The prior ones, and the whole reason I ended up in the US, were in a similar type space and we ended up being acquired by Yahoo!

Small Business Trends: You think artificial intelligence is at an inflection point.  

Dennis: I think we’ve had some sort of almost perverse fantasy for the last 50 years, where having solved AI — however we’re going to define it — out comes this human-like entity.  I don’t think that’s realistic.  I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime.  What I do think we’ll see, and certainly what I think we’re at right now, is this inflection point for where it’s certainly possible to create these verticalized AIs.  That means artificial intelligence that can do one job, one well-defined job, and that extremely well.  

I happen to be the guy who’s creating in an agent that can do meeting scheduling.  But you and I could easily imagine that there’s another agent that starts to do your travels or your receipts or your tax records, or whatever that might be.  And then come to the very end of it — the amalgamation of all these agents — might be something that looks like that fantasy that we’ve had or that Hollywood portrayed over the last couple of decades.  

Small Business Trends: When you think about things like Siri and Alexa with Amazon Echo, and Cortana with Microsoft – you’re seeing kind of these personal assistants … But how does Amy and what you’re doing with x.ai differ from what the bigger players seem to be doing?

Dennis: I might just be biased here, but I think it’s a fair viewpoint. If you think back to that first iPhone you bought, about eight years ago, it came preinstalled with two, three dozen apps because Apple believed in this whole idea of owning the stack from top to bottom; we write the hardware and the software as well, and this is one combined experience.  

They then quite quickly figured out — and in hindsight, quite obviously — that we can probably not do all the apps that are ever needed to be on this phone.  And they surrendered on that idea, and out came an app marketplace, and we now have a million and a half apps which is why your phone — which might be the same in hardware — it’s very different to my phone because I have different apps installed.

If you take that thought process and apply that onto intelligent agents, why did not equally naïve to believe that Siri will have all the answers to all the questions in the world. And will be able to do all the jobs that we ever would want it to do.  So given that, I think it’s more likely that Siri or Cortana or Echo, will be some sort of horizontal agent, an enabler. A starting point that will go hire other smarter, vertical agents.

So I think of myself as a vertical agent.  This agent that will actually have the capability to do a job, and that job in full, but only for that one specific subject matter.  So the way that would play out is a agent marketplace will arrive.  A place where we go hire agents, and those agents will be enabled by whatever personal assistant you might have on your phone so that you would say things like, “Hey, Siri.  Could you have Amy set up a meeting between Dennis and I for early next week, please?”  And it becomes Siri’s task to figure out which agent I’m talking about, enable and activate that agent, provide the right information to it and set that off to do its job.

I don’t see myself competing with them (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, etc) at all.  If anything, I see myself completely integrated into their ecosystem.  And I’ll just be one of many — hopefully I picked a good vertical I can both solve, and one which is worth something.

Small Business Trends: So you see a time where you’re actually working together.

Dennis: Very much so.  So say come February you decide — I better go do those taxes. You go to Yelp and try to find “some agent” that can help you do your taxes.  And you might end up with a local CPA.  You might end up at the local HR Block or whatever that might be.  In the not-too-distant future, you actually might be looking at an intelligent agent marketplace saying, “Which of these agents can help me do my taxes?”  And I’ll hire that agent, either continuously over the year, or just for the next three weeks to do this one job for me.

And then you would see yourself use Siri to activate that.  “Hi, Siri.  Can you have Bobby, my intelligent agent to do my taxes agents, do my receipts, make sure they report my holdings that are abroad”, and so on.

Small Business Trends: So basically, kind of these mundane tasks that take a lot of time but are necessary.  You’re seeing services like Amy and others, being able to work together to fill that gap.

Dennis: I actually don’t think that humans add much value in filling out forms or doing email ping pong back and forth to figure out that you and I are supposed to chat at 12:00 on 10/2/15.  That’s not something where human ingenuity impresses.  That is just a lot of grunt work. Now what humans are really good at – being creative, having new ideas, solving problems where there was no predetermined way of doing it.  Many things where humans will just do such a much better job, but there’s plenty of little details where somehow we get sucked into it, and there’s no way of escaping.

And to this day, anybody who will listen to this will agree that if you don’t have an assistant who scans your receipts, you do it yourself.  I’m not so sure that’s what you need a human to do, to scan your receipts to be reimbursed for a sandwich at Subway.  That should just be a task that doesn’t even exist.  

Small Business Trends: And as people use these services like Amy, and Amy learns let’s say, you do regular scheduling of meetings with certain people. And as Amy does more of that for people, does she begin to actually learn and anticipate – hey, you haven’t schedules a meeting with so and so. Do you want to schedule?  Does it get to that point?

Dennis: I think we’ll get to a point to where Amy at x.ai will not just be an assistant. She’ll be a super human assistant.  She’ll do things to where even if you wanted to spend the $50,000 in putting a human assistant on payroll, you would choose not to.  You would choose the machine because one, she’s got total recall, meaning that you and I chatted today.  She will remember that forever. She won’t forget next week, not the week after, not next year, not when you want to do a follow-up in 14 months.  She’ll know exactly when we chatted, what the subject was and so on and so forth.

She will also be able to juggle an unfair amount of meetings, and an unfair amount of participants and constraints and challenges – and not be stressed about it.  She will also be awake at 3:00 am on Sunday night to where you need her to do a little bit of work, for where you would never wake up your human personal assistant.  

There’s all these qualities for where, for this specific task, machines are just much, much better at doing it.  So you wouldn’t even think twice about it in the future.  It would be just kind of silly if you somehow tried to do this yourself.

Small Business Trends: This is fascinating because now you’re saying basically, the more that people leverage these kind of services that carry out the routine tasks that have to be done, they’re able to free themselves up to really think more creatively and maybe come up with better ideas for whatever it is they’re into.

Dennis: So, for today’s podcast, you would have done some research.  Who is Dennis?  Who is Amy?  Why is she so good at setting up meetings?  What are some of the latest research on AI?  And you would dedicate an amount of hours. That amount of time that you dedicated was actually mostly a result of the fact that you had to do other chores.  And had you been able to choose freely, you would probably have read even more if you like the subject matter as I do. You would have read more, but there is just not enough time because you had other chores.

I think once those chores disappear, we will see room for even more innovation.  And I’m just so excited about it.  And I might just be the forever optimist, and I don’t see the pessimist and the tens of millions of jobs that they suggest that we see disappear.  I just don’t see that outcome at all.  

Small Business Trends: We’re hearing a lot about the Internet of Things.  It almost sounds like you’re talking about the Internet of Artificial Intelligence, where these agents working on our behalf will be collaborating with each other to help us have better outcomes.

Dennis: Exactly.  And let’s just play out a simple scenario to exemplify that.  So this meeting, it’s one for where you email me. We chat a little bit over email, and then at some point I say, “You know what?  That sounds actually wonderful.  I’ve cc’d in Amy.  She can help put something on my calendar.”  What you could have said was, “Hey, great.  I’ve cc’d Andrew on my end.  He can hash it out with Amy.”

The funny thing here is, what if Andrew is Amy?  Who in the hell is she talking to?  She’s talking to herself.  That is one agent talking to itself, and that becomes interesting.  Because that means she can start doing things such as maximize happiness, and that sounds so grand that you might just throw up a little bit when I say it.  But stay with me.

Maximize happiness in the sense that this call that you and I do. I am actually equally okay in doing it at 8:30 a.m. this morning, at Noon today, or at 5:00.  My day is a little bit relaxed and that’s fine.  So I could certainly squeeze this in.  You might just have been much better off had we done this early because you need to fly out later.  Amy doesn’t know that unless she works for you, but if she did, she could have made sure that both you and I would have ended up slightly happier sum total.  And that I find fascinating. So the agents don’t become detractors, they start to add to our welfare.

Small Business Trends: Can you tell folks where they can learn more about Amy and what you guys are doing at x.ai?

Dennis: So I would love if those who listen don’t think that you and I are complete muppets, that they go to the website x.ai, and add their email to our waitlist.


This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

1 Comment ▼

Brent Leary


Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series. He is a Partner at CRM Essentials and organizer of the Social Business Atlanta conference. Brent serves on the advisory board of The University of Toronto CRM Center of Excellence, writes the Social CRM column for Inc.com's technology site, and blogs at Brent's Social CRM Blog.

One Reaction

  1. Martin Lindeskog

    Brent: Back to the future, heh?! 😉 Fascinating conversation. I will listen to this interview during my weekend walk. Where is the country .AI located?

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