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.