'How do we elegantly recover?'
Diane Kim, interaction designer
Ms. Kim is adamant: Her assistant doesn't use slang or emoji.
Her assistant, Andrew Ingram, also avoids small talk and doesn't waste time on topics beside scheduling her meetings, she said.
Ms. Kim isn't being tyrannical. She just knows her assistant better than most bosses, because she programmed him.
Ms. Kim, 22, works as an A.I. interaction designer at x.ai, a New York-based start-up offering an artificial intelligence assistant to help people schedule meetings. X.ai pitches clients on the idea that, through A.I., they get the benefits of a human assistant — saving the time and hassle of scheduling a meeting — at a fraction of the price.
It's Ms. Kim's job to craft responses for the company's assistants, who are named Andrew and Amy Ingram, or A.I. for short, that feel natural enough that swapping emails with these computer systems feels no different than emailing with a human assistant.
Ms. Kim's job — part playwright, part programmer and part linguist — didn't exist before Alexa, Siri and other A.I. assistants. The job is like a translator of sorts. It is to help humans access the A.I.'s superhuman capabilities like 24/7 availability and infallible memory without getting tripped up by robotic or awkward language.
Even in the narrow parameters of scheduling meetings, it takes a lot of machine learning to break down emails for a computer. For example, setting a meeting for "Wednesday" is different than setting a meeting for "a Wednesday," as in any Wednesday. X.ai breaks down emails to their component parts to understand intent.
The automated response is where Ms. Kim takes over. Her job is to imagine how a human assistant would arrange a meeting for the boss. For a specific task, she devises different situations — for example, what if the meeting had five attendees versus two — and then she creates a flow chart of how the email exchange would go.
The goal is to schedule a meeting in as few emails as possible. With that in mind, x.ai settled on a set of personality traits for its assistants: polite, professional, friendly and clear.
Sometimes, it's hard to predict what will rub people the wrong way. Early on, the A.I. assistant sent emails to potential attendees saying that the assistant would be happy to put something on the boss's "calendar," but some people found that wording to be cold, and not always appropriately deferential to the other attendees.
X.ai changed the wording so that the A.I. assistant says it would be happy to "find a time" that works for all attendees.
Some people try to test the A.I. assistants with unusual requests. For example, people are curious what else the assistants can do and ask for help in booking hotels, flights or conference rooms (things they can't do). Others ask Amy's age, or Andrew's birthday. "How do we elegantly recover when Amy or Andrew don't know what to do?" Ms. Kim said.
X.ai doesn't pretend the assistants are human. But Ms. Kim still gets satisfaction when people don't realize that the assistants are robots. People ask them out on dates. They receive thank-you emails from happy customers even though, as robots, they don't need gratitude.
"They're shocked and surprised that they were talking to an A.I.," she said.