AI is experiencing an astounding resurrection. After so many broken promises, the term “artificial intelligence” had become almost a dirty word in technology circles. The field is now rising from the ashes. Researchers who had been toiling away in semi-obscurity over the last few decades have suddenly become superstars and have been aggressively recruited by the largest Internet companies: Yann LeCun (see his recent talk at our Data Driven NYC event here) by Facebook; Geoff Hinton by Google; Andrew Ng by Baidu. Google spent over $400 million to acquire DeepMind, a 2 year old secretive UK AI startup. The press and social media are awash with thoughts on AI. Elon Musk cautions us against its perils.
What’s different this time? As Irving Wladawsky-Berger pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article, “a different AI paradigm emerged. Instead of trying to program computers to act intelligently–an approach that hadn’t worked because we don’t really know what intelligence is– AI now embraced a statistical, brute force approach based on analyzing vast amounts of information with powerful computers and sophisticated algorithms.” In other words, the resurgence of AI is partly a child of Big Data, as better algorithms (in particular, what’s known as “deep learning”, pioneered by LeCun and others) have been enabled by larger than ever datasets and the ability to process those datasets at scale at reasonable cost.
The opportunity has not been lost on entrepreneurs, and a crop of startups has emerged at the intersection of Big Data, AI and machine learning (for an overview, see Shivon Zilis’ excellent landscape here). Those startups seem to roughly follow two types of approach.
One approach is to think of AI as a largely horizontal platform, a core “global brain” than can then be selectively used for various specific uses across verticals. This seems to be the approach taken by some prominent startups in the space, such as Vicarious and Viv Labs.
Another approach is to think that we’re about to witness the emergence of a number of deeply focused AI-powered applications that will achieve commercial success by solving in a definitive manner very specific issues. This approach is perfectly summarized by Kevin Kelly in a recent Wired article: “Most of the commercial work completed by AI will be done by special-purpose, narrowly focused software brains that can, for example, translate any language into any other language, but do little else. Drive a car, but not converse. Or recall every pixel of every video on YouTube but not anticipate your work routines. In the next 10 years, 99 percent of the artificial intelligence that you will interact with, directly or indirectly, will be nerdily autistic, supersmart specialists.”
Today, I’m excited to announce that FirstMark is leading a $9.2M Series A round in x.ai, a fascinating New York-based startup that resolutely falls in the camp of AI-powered vertical, focused applications.
x.ai doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It is an AI-powered personal assistant that schedules meetings for you. Nothing more, and nothing less. If, just like me when I was an employee at Oracle and Bloomberg, you need to schedule (and reschedule) dozens of meetings and calls every week without having the luxury of a personal assistant, then x.ai is for you. After giving it a few tries, you quickly find yourself using x.ai on a daily basis, on par with any of your core productivity tools.
x.ai is the closest thing I have seen in a very long time to a “magical” product experience. It quite literally functions like a human personal assistant, working invisibly behind the scenes and hiding tremendous complexity behind an incredibly simple experience. There’s no app to download, password to remember, or new process to learn. All you do is connect your calendar, and start CC’ing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com (both are named so that their initials are “AI”) like you would if you had a PA (in particular, using normal language, as you would with a human). The software then goes to work and emails back and forth with whomever you’re trying to meet with until a time and place has been agreed upon. As anybody who has tried the product will tell you: it just works, 100% of the time. GigaOm called it recently “the best scheduling assistant ever“. For a glimpse into how x.ai works behind the scenes, particularly in terms of AI/NLP/machine learning, see their talk at Data Driven NYC here.
x.ai is a very viral product, as it spreads through daily email conversations. It also has the potential to build significant network effects. As it schedules more meetings every day, it keeps accumulating relevant data and getting smarter about its specific mission. In addition, as more people use the product, everyone’s experience improves – when two people using x.ai try to schedule a meeting (and regardless of whether one is on Google Calendar and the other on Exchange for example), then meetings get immediately scheduled without any of the usual back and forth.
The team behind x.ai is a group of fearless seasoned entrepreneurs, led by Dennis Mortensen. Several of them have worked together in previous successful data ventures and all are deeply focused on building a groundbreaking product that will change the lives of millions of professionals around the world.
As part of the investment, I am joining the x.ai board of directors, and I couldn’t be more excited to partner with this team, as well as their seed investors.
x.ai is currently in closed beta, but you an add your email to the waiting list on their home page. They give full access to new users every week.