It’s been nearly three years since I had the pleasure of speaking with Dennis Mortensen, founder and CEO of X.ai — the service behind Amy and Andrew — autonomous AI assistants who schedule meetings.
Since three years in tech is like 20 years in real life, and with smart, digital assistants being at the top of many hot technology lists, I wanted to get Dennis’ perspective on how things have changed since we last spoke and how he sees the intelligent agent landscape shaping up.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. To see the full conversation see the video below, or click on the embedded SoundCloud player.
Since we last spoke, what have been some of the biggest developments or changes in what Amy is able to do?
Dennis Mortensen: We’ve been really working hard on accuracy. I would say most of the first year was simply just defining that universe that we exist in, and the last three years have been on trying to perfect the agent. The agent can truly operate in a fully autonomous way. That is one, and anybody doing anything with an agent that was supposed to be autonomous, whether it is driving a car or schedule a meeting or doing any number of things, I think we’ll have that interesting curve for where .. you’re just a height on progress that first year and then you get into that really slow progress for where most people just surrender. We stopped to it though. As in, we will get to the very end of it. And Amy and Andrew are two agents that are in extremely good shape. They’ve never been more accurate, never been faster, never had more skills than today.
But taking that aside we tried very hard to make sure that people understand from a design point of view that you are now talking to a machine. Well, we’re also trying to do a job so well, so that come the end of that conversation, you still feel okay in saying, “oh, thank you very much, Amy.” So there’s been a lot of design exploration over the last three, four years and I think we’ve become experts in something for where I’m very aware of the fact that we certainly don’t have all the answers just yet, but we’re certainly much more … tuned into, how should I say, designing these agents.
And there’ll be a whole industry around setup design principles. Just like you and me and everybody we know who’s done anything in the software space for the last 20 years, we’ll have good ideas of design principles for the desktop or design principles for the Mobile UI, but not many of us have really good design principles for the intelligent agent or fully invisible software. So those are two good notes from the last three years.
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Small Business Trends: The whole idea of designing for things like,these assistants, and voice assistants as well, it seems like there’s a lot more emphasis being put on that today than it was a couple of years ago when these technologies were starting to come up.
Dennis Mortensen: I do think it’s important to at least separate the UI from the agent, or the intelligence, if you will. And there’s certainly a true move towards the conversational UI. And the conversational UI can be realized in straight up voice; Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and so on and so forth, or it could be realized in text form like writing; Siri, and getting some sort of response on your phone or writing Amy and her writing back to you about when we’re supposed to meet. But that’s a UI paradigm and we moved from the command line interface where I took my CS degree, to some sort of graphical user interface which my mom who worked in for decades with spreadsheets and word processors, and what have you, to a mobile UI which my kids grew up on, to this baby step into the conversational UI.
I’m not sure we exactly know what that entails and how much of an overlap the conversational UI will have with any of the prior UI paradigms, but they’re just UIs that are not intelligent in their own right. Now, the reason we haven’t seen … as much intelligence in all of the progress in machine learning over the last decade, surely, but also that some of that intelligence, some of that autonomy is… difficult to inject into any of the prior UI paradigms, but in the conversational UI, it sort of becomes much easier to design for autonomy. I say, in you asking me a question, “hey Dennis, can you go find me a pair of tickets to Miami this weekend for my wife and two daughters, and I need to be back Monday at 8:00 AM?” That’s a request which you and I get. It’s a request for where you and me could jump into Expedia or Kayak, and kinda solve for it. So it’s a very good interface to describe objectives for where the graphical interface is not as robust an interface for that.
So now that this is arriving, then you’re seeing these agents not just being question and answer machines: “What’s the time in Singapore? Set my alarm for tomorrow morning.” But real agents that will have some objective described and then needs to have the capacity of the intelligence run off on their own. And I think the sooner we can truly separate the two, the better the principles we can come up with, both design principles and reasoning principles on the other side.
Small Business Trends: You know, when we first talked, Alexa, Echo devices, were really new. Google hadn’t even come out with Google Home. Apple wasn’t even a blip on the radar with what they’re doing. But now, fast forward to today, what impact has these voice assistants had on kinda the direction you thought things were going?
Dennis Mortensen: If anything, I made some entrepreneurial bets on the fact that they would proliferate, because there’s many things you can do as a startup, but there’s certainly one thing which you cannot do, which is educate the market. That is so expensive that if you’re in a setting as a startup where your success hinges on your ability to educate the market in full, then you already lost. That is a big, core task and you need to make sure that somehow that is being taken care of. Doesn’t mean that you and me can’t find examples of startups that’s been able to do so, but I’m very skeptical of taking on such a challenge, so I certainly hoped that there will be one of those Amazon Echos on every Christmas tree for the last three years.
And it certainly looked like that was the case, to the tune of tens of millions of devices right now. And what that have done is introduce the conversational UI to normal people, that this is not something where you need to be a geek to fool around with Alexa. You could just be my mom and put one of these devices in your bedroom and you can ask it about the weather or put it in the kitchen, have it kinda set a timer and it’s normal. And the more normal that becomes, the less I have to kinda train people on how to use the conversational UI, or how to you use Amy and Andrew at X.AI.
Small Business Trends: Are you surprised that so far the integrations between the big platforms like Amazon and Microsoft and Google, they just haven’t happened really?
Dennis Mortensen: I don’t think we’ll see any real integration. You’re actually right that Amazon and Microsoft have introduced some idea off getting access to Cortana through Alexa, but … certainly as I read it, and I’m not necessarily seeing that being something that we should expect to proliferate in the market. I think all of them are fighting to become that new platform, or that new OS, because I do think that you’ll have some sort of enabler AI, if you will, where you become friends with Siri or Google Assistant or Alexa, and you expect them to be able to answer a lot of questions. It was really the most basic of things. Just like when you buy your iPhone, it comes with a set of basic apps and you can use it right out of the box. But if you really want to personalize it and use it as a work tool, you install 40 other apps on your phone that are unique to you.
I said, “what does a Danish American dude with two teenage daughters, living in Manhattan, running a startup need on his phone?” I said, Apple has no idea, which is why you got an App Store with 3 million apps, and I’m gonna install all my own specific applications. I think it will be the same in this new section where you’ll become friends with, say, Alexa and you’ll use her as the enabler AI. You’ll manage the lights or your heating or any number of other things around the house and you can ask her some basic things to do with productivity or what have you. But if you really want to get work done, you would expect them to be able to integrate with the setup. Highly verticalized AIs that are super specific could do one job and do that one job really, really well, and that’s how it becomes specific. So I think it’ll be a fight amongst the top five. They’ll never really cross over and you’ll see people pick one of them just like you might have an Android, I might have IOS, we might have pretty much the same opportunities, but it will be you picking one of those. And then can I install it, that set of skills on top of it.
Small Business Trends: So if we were to look out the next three to five years, where are we going to be? Where’s Amy going to be and Andrew going to be? And in general, where are we going to be with virtual assistants?
Dennis Mortensen: I certainly see a near term future for where the idea of having an assistant, it’s not exotic and becomes normal. Perhaps so normal that if you go for a job interview and they ask you, “So, tell me about some of your skills.” Typically that would start with, you going to school up at Columbia, taking this particular degree, some level of work experience, and the usual type of commentary. But perhaps they will start to include, “but I’ve also hired these six agents that I’ve been training over the last two years so that when I do do inserts to Salesforce, or when I do schedule my meetings, or when I do my reimbursements, these are the agents I use. This is how I use them and this is why I’m slightly more productive than the next guy you’re going to interview.” So they might just end up being some sort of extension of you, so much so that if you go into a job interview and you don’t bring any one of those agents, it could seem a little bit, eccentric.
Small Business Trends: One last thing I thought about, what role are millennials playing as they move into the workforce at higher numbers and adopting this kind of technology?
Dennis Mortensen: … I think they might just be less willing, which I like, to do little meaningless chores day in and day out. Stuff you and I have just accepted. I just take my own tool as a good example, but there’s plenty of this in your inbox, for where I spent the last 20 years sitting on meetings in exactly the same way. I said when I got my first email, what was that, ’90, ’91? And I had my first meeting? It was a different email client, but it’s kinda the same way, right? My buddy emails me, I email back, do a little bit of ping pong. We agree on next Wednesday at 1:00. I assemble an invite, send it out.
It’s the same .ICS file by the way, that goes out today. Then compared to what we said about 20 years ago, so for 20 years later, not a weekend, not in a couple of weeks, but for 20 bloody years I did email ping pong. That’s a lifetime. I don’t think … the generation behind me will be as willing to do a stint of 20 years of a shitty chore. I think they would ask to have that removed. They’ll say, “hey, you know what? I didn’t go to school until I was 24 to sit here and do email ping pong. No thank you.” So I think they will just ask to have these agents be part of their job.
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.