Cortana. Siri. Google Now. Facebook M. This quartet of artificial intelligence platforms, made by Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook, respectively, can find you a place to eat dinner, look up the score of the football game, or even crack a decent joke.
But none promise the same specific functionality of Clara. Just CC Clara onto any email, and it’ll take over the conversation just like a real personal assistant would. It can juggle lunch meetings and your kids soccer practice, to go through the tedious “does 3pm on thursday work for you?” conversation to schedule an appointment.
Of course, Clara isn’t real. It’s not on your payroll. It’s just a piece of artificial intelligence.
“We don’t like to look at Clara as much as an assistant as more of an employee or partner of yours,” explains Maran Nelson, founder of the Austin-based, Y-combinator born startup Clara Labs. “Clara should act as an extension of your own will with a strong understanding of the thing you trying to accomplish and the ability to act on your behalf.”
That intent and ability to act is the real differentiating sales pitch between Clara and the AIs developed by the big four companies in tech. Cortana will help you format an email. Clara will write it for you. Siri will take dictation and send a message on command. Clara can be delegated to finish a conversation and schedule an appointment.
But if Clara’s promises of being an “extension of your own will” sound vague, that’s only because Nelson has big, yet-to-be-actualized plans for Clara, as a member of your team that’s graceful enough to talk to humans, yet code savvy enough to interface directly with software products. Right now, it’s learning the first part of that equation thanks to a lot of human help. Clara will read and parse your email threads, while micro-taskers on the backend check much of the work. Clara presents simple yes or no questions–like “can you confirm this email is asking for a coffee meeting”–before sending an invite to an important business contact. And with each fact check, the algorithm learns and gets smarter.
To ensure Clara’s competent enough to do the job, Nelson’s team has focused on one core specialty, to prove the concept and get users hooked.
“Scheduling is a powerful first application for Clara because it’s so habitual. You’re immediately building a relationship that’s highly dependent. Achieving that type of frequency [with any product] is very hard,” Nelson explains. “You can’t make mistakes with things like this. There’s low tolerance thresholds for something like this. But if you deliver on it, you’re managing someone’s time for them. You’re truly with them constantly.”
In essence, Clara is trying to do a single essential, wastefully repeated task we all deal with very well, to create the sort of immediate user dependence that Siri, for all of its cocktail party tricks, has failed to elicit. As Nelson puts it, “Clara has one conversation. That conversation is about scheduling, and that conversation sets her up well to have further conversations in the future.”
“Imagine the human capital in a system like this after it’s scheduled hundreds of thousands of meetings,” Nelson continues later. “No human being in many, many lifetimes will ever have interacted with this kind of conversation as many times as we have, learning how to be socially dexterous and kind in having those conversations. A lot of the strength for us is truly understanding how to achieve that.”
And because Clara currently lives inside your email, there’s no learning curve of user interface to using it. We all know how to CC someone on an email, and furthermore, email allows her to be platform agnostic. Cortana lives on iOS only at a very limited capacity. Similarly, Siri is powerless in the Windows kingdom. But Clara is always lurking inside your email on any device or OS, ready to hop into the next conversation.