Most of us want privacy in our apps. We worry about them digging through our Facebook feeds, let alone something more personal like our email. But what’s possible when we take a leap of faith, and just hand it all over to a robot that’s smarter than us?
You get something like Tempo, an incredibly ambitious iPhone calendar app from SRI (who created Siri). Tempo isn’t just some skin for your Apple or Google Calendar. It’s more akin to a personal assistant built from AI that connects your appointments to the world of data lurking in your correspondence. Tempo digs through your email (Gmail, Exchange, iCloud, Yahoo, or IMAP) and combines this information with your calendar to create contextual appointments.
At first glance, Tempo’s daily appointment schedule is fairly typical. But click into any appointment and you’re greeted with a plethora of options. Say you have a phone meeting at 8 a.m. You don’t just get a notification to phone in for a conference call, you see that you’re calling to meet with your boss. The most recent emails they sent you are a button press away–Excel files, too. You can call in, complete with those pesky dial codes, with one touch. If you’re running late, just hit the “I’m late” button to send a quick notification. (Were you meeting at Starbucks instead, Tempo would attempt to guess which “Starbucks” was in your calendar and give you directions there.) In this regard, Tempo really is a personal assistant, with all of those seemingly human functions consolidated a tap away.
Well, that’s the pitch at least. So I tried it.
After installing the app and registering for the service, Tempo suggested that I close the app to let it finish analyzing my Gmail. It texted me–I want to say an hour later–when it was done. I pulled up my schedule for the day. Since I live in the buzzing urban environment of Chicago–or, as Tempo apparently sees it, the Midwest–I was greeted with a tractor. Beneath that odd image from Kansas, my schedule didn’t feel any different than life before the app. I was missing secondary data layers on most of my appointments, assumably because I’m a bit too cryptic in GCal. So Tempo mostly felt like just another calendar.
But you can sense the wheels spinning, at times. My most robust entry was a call with Summly‘s Nick D’Aloisio. I’d actually misspelled his last name. Tempo was smart enough to dig through my iPhone contacts to find two other Nicks and pull their phone numbers, should I want them, but not quite clever enough to search my Gmail contacts to pull correspondence from the one Nick I’d actually been speaking to as of late. Fixing the typo, Tempo ditched the two wrong Nicks–seemingly recognizing there was a real match out there now–but still came up empty when searching my email. And since it couldn’t find the right Nick, it would never be able to perform fancier tricks like putting files we might have shared into my calendar. (Note: Tempo later explained this problem is likely the result of their email AI being deactivated for user loads. It will be reactivated in the next few days.)
Maybe if I’d sent Nick (the right Nick) a formal, GCal meeting invite, all of these threads would have sewn together seamlessly. But the ultimate appeal of Tempo is specifically mitigating improper use, un-jumbling these moments in our schedule so that a few virtual sticky notes–one floating in email, another on our phone, another on Facebook–marry as one, magical data conglomerate that keeps us from digging through our horrifying inbox. When Tempo brings their email AI back onboard, we’ll know how well it really works, which I’m betting is pretty well. Even when Tempo fails, you can sense the wheels spinning. My guess is that the app actually has a lot of the information design right, but it’s simply ironing out the kinks of constantly indexing and cross-referencing the slew of emails we send each day.