“I’d love to get together. Cc’ing Clara on our end to set a time on the calendar.”
A lot of people I know now have an assistant named Clara. And each of these Claras is remarkably deft at cutting through that often unending chain of time-wasting emails that result from trying to make an appointment. This is not some strange fluke of social science. People named Clara are not preternaturally gifted meeting makers. Clara is a digital avatar, a special blend of data, machine learning, and algorithms that’s backed by humans and designed to make sure you never have an embarrassing (or devastating) calendar failure. It’s the product of a stealthy startup named, yep, Clara Labs. For less than $400 a month, anyone can have an assistant that is, as Clara promises, three times more reliable than a human. That puts Clara Labs at the forefront of a movement to augment our increasingly overwhelming daily lives with what I call assistive intelligence.
This feels like science fiction only until you realize that we’re already using many products and services that are preparing us for assistive intelligence. When the Internet exploded in size in the late 1990s, we abandoned human-powered tools, such as Yahoo’s website directory and bookmarking favorite sites in our browser, in favor of letting Google “remember” everywhere we wanted to go online. Once our capacity to recall, sort, and save bumped against the sheer size and scope of the Internet itself, we needed machines to help.
As recently as the early 2000s, humans had limited ways to stay in touch with everyone from our school days, our neighborhoods, our extended families, and our previous jobs. The social web, starting with Friendster, MySpace, and then Facebook, has been a software-based augmentation of our need for human connection. Facebook (as well as LinkedIn) helps us organize the thousands of people we meet in a lifetime, supplementing our memories and ability to catch every bit of news with algorithmically driven birthday reminders, baby notices, marriage albums, and career moves. Some people quibble with the outsize power we’ve given these services to prompt us to connect with the people we know, but their relationship-management skills are simply a fact of modern life.
As more and more of our existence intersects with the digital domain, humans are undoubtedly going to need even more help. Gyroscopes, compasses, accelerometers, embedded microprocessors, radios, and sensors are cheap. They are all around us—in our phones, our wearables, and our connected appliances, to name just a few. The proliferation of sensors is what author Chris Anderson calls the “peace dividend of the smartphone wars,” and they are all throwing off data streams. We aren’t going to be able to manage all these streams.
Machines will have to talk to machines to help us do our jobs and live smarter. Tools that plug into a car’s data port to track how you drive are intriguing, for example, but consider the efforts of Sascha Simon, the former head of the advanced planning group at Mercedes-Benz, and now the founder of Apio Systems. Simon and company are building a platform that takes all sorts of sensor data from your phone and your car and sends it to its cloud to make sense of it all. The goal: Avoid accidents and let even partially self-driving vehicles be aware of what’s happening around them. Is this artificial intelligence or just technology at its best? I opt for the latter.