E Chat­bots

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con­trac­tors to re­view some e-mails. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Maran Nel­son says most of the work­ers are women but won’t say how many there are, where they work, or what per­cent­age of e-mails they re­view. “That’s a com­mon frus­tra­tion among any­body in this cat­e­gory—how opaque it is,” she ac­knowl­edges. “It was sim­i­larly frus­trat­ing, when Clara was three months old, to have a lot of in­vestors con­grat­u­late us on hav­ing a fully au­to­mated bot.”

Mim­ick­ing an au­to­mated as­sis­tant with a skele­ton crew can be drain­ing. At X.ai, Calvin says, there were some days early last year when train­ers worked from 7 a.m. un­til 9:30 p.m., be­cause the ser­vice was sup­posed to be close to 24/7, and they couldn’t leave un­til the queue of e-mails was done for the night. “I left feel­ing to­tally numb and ab­sent of any sort of emo­tion,” he says. The com­pany wouldn’t dis­close the sched­ules of its 21 AI train­ers, but Bergfield says, “we would never tell peo­ple that they need to work those hours.”

Gobut­ler, a we’ll-do-any­thing ser­vice in New York th that takes re­quests via text mes­sage, wasw sim­i­larly in­tense, say former em em­ploy­ees Lucy Pichardo and Alex Gioiella.Gioie Gobut­ler guar­an­tees 24-hour se ser­vice, and the former work­ers say th that un­til Fe­bru­ary al­most noth­ing was ful­lyfu au­to­mated, so hu­mans had to be on duty at all times to or­der cus­tom cus­tomers’ take­out meals and last-minute gift gifts through other on­line ser­vices, like S Seam­less or Post­mates.

Gobut­ler wo work­ers, called he­roes, worked shifts from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 4 p.m. to midn mid­night, and for one week a month had tot work from mid­night to 8 a.m., swapp swap­ping places at the shared desks where theyth were re­quired to eat lunch. He­roes typ­i­cally han­dled up to five re­quests ata once, but some­times they jug­gled tw twice as many. “Peo­ple felt a bit overw over­worked and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated,” says Gioiella, a former se­nior op­er­a­tions as­so­ci­ate, or “su­per­hero.”

In De­cem­ber, Pichardo says, they were al­lowed a 30-minute shift at the of­fice hol­i­day party be­fore re­turn­ing to their com­put­ers. A spokes­woman says ex­ec­u­tives also took turns work­ing hero shifts dur­ing the party.

Former train­ers at X.ai say they came to think of Amy al­most as a real per­son, be­cause they could see the AI grad­u­ally learn­ing and im­prov­ing. They wanted to pro­tect her from bad data, like the hand­ful of monthly e-mails ask­ing the bot for sex­ual fa­vors.

The specter of job loss hangs over much of the AI de­bate. X.ai founder Den­nis Mortensen wrote in an e-mail that he’s try­ing to shift away from hu­man edit­ing as he pre­pares to move the ser­vice from beta to pub­lic re­lease this year and charge $9 a month for it. Gobut­ler fired its 25 he­roes in Fe­bru­ary, say­ing it would go fully au­to­mated and con­cen­trate first on book­ing flights. Nel­son, Clara’s CEO, is charg­ing cor­po­rate cus­tomers $199 a month per user, and says she’ll keep hu­man agents on if that’s what it takes to keep the ser­vice re­li­able.

Thanks but no thanks, say some of the former AI im­per­son­ators, who were more than happy to leave their jobs to the ma­chines. Calvin quit X.ai last Oc­to­ber and now works in busi­ness op­er­a­tions at a dif­fer­ent New York startup. While a few of X.ai’s 64 em­ploy­ees have been pro­moted out of the train­ing queue, “the work just ended up be­ing way too tax­ing,” he says, “with­out a tan­gi­ble pay­off in sight.” �Ellen Huet

Learn­ing to code em­pow­ers women in Latin Amer­ica

In­no­va­tion: A six­month voy­age to the bot­tom of the sea The bot­tom line Star­tups pitch­ing so-called AI as­sis­tants, which took in $50 mil­lion in in­vest­ment in two years, tend to re­quire hu­man as­sis­tance. Num­ber of preschools and day care cen­ters in the U.S.

App mak­ers in­clud­ing Hi­mama, Tad­poles, and Brightwhee­l of­fer up-to-the-minute de­tails of a child’s day. Brightwhee­l says teach­ers us­ing its soft­ware send each child’s par­ents 8 to 10 up­dates in a typ­i­cal day. Some sam­ple day care mes­sages: “Ser­ena was in a photo—aquar­ium!! (4:49 pm); Ser­ena ate—food: [ate] most (4:55 pm); Ku­dos! Counted to 20 to­day! (5:51 pm).” Par­ents can also use Brightwhee­l to pay tu­ition. David Raye, the owner of a God­dard School fran­chise in Third Lake, Ill., says Tad­poles saves him $2,000 a year on pa­per and copier ex­penses.

For par­ents, all three lead­ing apps are free. Tad­poles charges schools $2.25 a month per child; Hi­mama charges $29 a month per class. (Brightwhee­l isn’t charg­ing schools, but it raised $600,000 on Shark Tank.) Hi­mama co-founder Ron Spreeuwen­berg says par­ents are his best sales­peo­ple. When a user’s phone buzzes with an up­date dur­ing a meet­ing, co-work­ers say, “My kid goes to day care. Why don’t I get this?” and pester their day care providers to sub­scribe, he says.

Hi­mama, in Toronto, says users grew 15 per­cent monthly in the first quar­ter of the year and now num­ber 100,000. Tad­poles, in Bethesda, Md., says more than 1 mil­lion fam­i­lies in 50 states use its soft­ware. San Fran­cisco’s Brightwhee­l de­clined to share user num­bers.

Michael Rich, a pe­di­atrics pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Med­i­cal School and direc­tor of the Cen­ter on Me­dia and Child Health, says a con­stant stream of up­dates may ex­ac­er­bate the con­trol­ling ten­den­cies of par­ents who should use preschool or day care as an op­por­tu­nity to un­clench. “There’s value to un­der­stand­ing your kid’s take on what hap­pened at school rather than an om­ni­scient Big Brother view,” he says.

That’s great if your kid is ea­ger to share, says Tad­poles co-founder Andy Mon­roe, but his own kinder­garten-age daugh­ter is of­ten a lot chat­tier when he can prompt her with a photo from a teacher. Oth­er­wise, she’s as likely as not to an­swer any ques­tions about the day’s events with a flat, “Noth­ing.” Devon Gorry, an econ­o­mist at Utah State Univer­sity whose 2-year-old son started at a day care us­ing Brightwhee­l in Jan­uary, says the daily up­dates have also helped deepen talks with teach­ers.

Apps can help keep par­ents from get­ting over­in­volved, says Tra­cie Rieb­schlager, as­sis­tant direc­tor of Oak Brook School, a preschool out­side Dal­las that uses Hi­mama to send sev­eral photos a day to par­ents. Some ri­vals have in­stalled cam­eras to run con­tin­u­ous video feeds on their web­sites, Rieb­schlager says. “I know par­ents who sit and watch their kids all day at work,” she says. “To me, this is much health­ier.” �David Gau­vey Her­bert

“This isn’t char­ity work. It’s a win-win.” ——Gisella Esquivel, IT direc­tor at Wun­der­man Phan­ta­sia, who has hired grad­u­ates from Lab­o­ra­to­ria The bot­tom line Apps that dig­i­tize up­dates from preschools and day cares are be­com­ing pop­u­lar perks for par­ents, too.

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