Rise of the bots: X. ai raises $23m more for Amy, a bot that arranges appointments

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 10:52 PM

Today, a New York-based startup called X. ai — which has developed a bot that helps you organize meetings with other people by way of a virtual assistant (‘Amy’ or ‘Andrew’) — announced that it's raised $23 million.

Rise of the bots: X. ai raises $23m more for Amy, a bot that arranges appointments

While voice-recognition-powered virtual assistants love Siri, Cortana and Amazon’s Echo continue to obtain more useful and dependable on the march to platform-dom, there is a parallel wave of development underway that's captured the public eye, where machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural speech processing are getting corralled for more narrowly purposed means — by way of bots.

Today, a New York-based startup called X. ai — which has developed a bot that helps you organize meetings with other people by way of a virtual assistant (‘Amy’ or ‘Andrew’) — announced that it's raised $23 million. The Series B funding will be used to get X. ai from a closed and free beta to a commercial product, and the startup also plans to hire more data scientists and other engineers.

X. ai isn't releasing details of its valuation, but we realize from reliable sources that it's presently around $100 million — a decent leap on the $40 million valuation the company had when it announced its Series A of $9 million in January 2015.

The funding is being led by Two Sigma Ventures, with other new investors including DCM Ventures and Work­Bench Ventures. Also participating in this circular were investors IA Ventures, Firstmark Capital, Softbank Capital / SBNY, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Crunchfund (co-founded by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington), and Pritzker Grouping Venture Capital.

Bots have been in the news of late for reasons excellent and bad. Microsoft’s Tay, a chatbot that launched with all excellent intentions to memorise how the youths speak today, had to go offline (with hiccups) after some cheeky types started to learn it racist slurs. Quartz turned a lot of heads with an app that was also based around a chat bot to serve you news stories.

While Tay lived on Twitter and Quartz’s news bot is in an iPhone app, X. ai was built around the platform that founder and CEO Dennis Mortensen said is the main one used today to organize in-person and virtual meetings — email.

There are number other interfaces available now, but the following likely one will be what Mortensen says is the next-most-popular medium for making plans — text messaging. Echo, Cortana and the rest may arrive later, he said. (Indeed, it’s getting a lot easier to integrate into these platforms, although some like Siri stay relatively closed off.)

In contrast to some of the rapid pace that we’ve seen for the likes of Amazon’s Echo in terms of added functionality, X. ai has been a relatively unhurried developer. The startup first hit the market in May two thousand fourteen, when it also announced a seed round, and in the latest two years or so it's remained in a closed, invite-only beta.

The main — and indeed, only — product today is a “person” that exists as an email address, today that being Amy or Andrew. When you wish to create a map to speak or meet with someone you duplicate in Amy or Andrew (fascinating sidenote: the real humans who work at X. ai have ‘human’ in their email address, to contrast with amy@x. ai and andrew@x. ai… sign of the future?).

If it’s an in-person meeting, that bot will start to propose places to meet and times to meet. If you’ve used Amy or Andrew before, they'll start to memorise about whether you're a Starbucks or Blue Bottle type, or if you prefer knocking one back with your contact at the local pub. Once a meeting is set it's added into whatever calendar you use.

Interestingly, while some are clearly trying to set up platforms in this space — Amazon’s Alexa and Echo being maybe one of the most obvious examples — X. ai and Mortensen believes there will be an increasing no of powerful players that are just doing single services based around AI very well.

“The way I think this will play out is that you will have highly specialised and very intelligent vertical AIs,” he said, “not half-assed at everything but really excellent at one thing. We want, when you're thinking of things you might wish to keep on your calendar, that you think of nothing beyond cc’ing Amy.”

Of course, there are many more things that can grow out of that, for example Amy starting to propose meetings rather than just reacting to your summoning her. But even without lots more functionality, the idea of doing on thing really well is clearly something that's resonated with the investors, too. 

“Amy has scheduled more than 1.000 meetings for me in the past year. That’s a staggering number, and the benefits only compound within large organizations,” said Jonathan Lehr, Managing Director at Work­Bench, in a statement. “There’s a certain magic to Amy that lights people up. I’m not sure I’ve seen a productivity product exterior of Slack with this much potential, that delivers genuine ROI to the enterprise.”

X. ai isn't disclosing how many users there are on the product today but Mortensen says there are “hundreds of thousands” with a very long waiting list as well.

Today, the product is free and the map is to hold a free tier in space as paid tiers obtain added in. The free tier will likely have the feature of arranging many meetings, but maybe number longer unlimited. “We don’t wish to handicap the assistant,” he said. The paid tiers will be “Dropbox-style”, Mortensen told me. That's to say, there will be a certain quantity of data that'll be given far with a very low barrier to entry on the free product (‘$10 hypothetically’ is the price he told me). “The pricing will needs to cement the fact that this is software,” he said.

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