Artificial intelligence has been on the horizon for decades, fueled by science fiction writers and futurists. From 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 to Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity concept, AI has been presented as something we will experience… someday.
But there are consumer-level AI services available in the marketplace now. I’ve lived with two AI services for the last year – The Grid and x.ai – and they provide the opportunity to plug in and test out AI in familiar business functions.
The Grid builds websites. I’ve worked for marketing and web agencies, so I have dealt with anxious clients who don’t know how to explain what they want or don’t really care about design. For my own websites, I’ve bounced between Squarespace, WordPress, the late Jux, Tumblr, Wix, Weebly, and other DIY web builders. The Grid promises to step in and design everything for you at just $96/year.
I pre-paid in October 2014 [Founding Member #5326] and waited for 13 months until my beta access was granted. I had tempered my expectations – this was a brand-new AI service – and it’s a good thing I did. Building websites is complicated business, and The Grid has to improve before it becomes a viable option.
The initial interface was difficult to understand, and I had ongoing problems with simple content management functions like copy/paste. The design process – The Grid’s main selling point – has undergone several iterations. One option pulled website colors from a photograph of your choice. At one point, users could influence the desktop layout to make blog posts appear full-width or tiled. Currently, it displays a series of design options that the user ranks from one to five stars and uses the feedback to make changes. It’s not easy to directly influence modifications.
After 12 months of playing with The Grid, I still am not comfortable moving my main website to the platform. They are still adding basic features like topline navigation and multiple contributors. Ecommerce is promised for 2017. But I have never been happy with the layouts, the color tools, or the font selectors. Maybe it’s my hangup about being in control of design options… which is ironically what drove me to try The Grid in the first place. I wanted to give design responsibility to the machine.
The Grid hasn’t been great for me, but I’m giving it time to mature. In the last year, it’s been obvious their dev team has been hustling to deploy new elements and updates to the interface. It’s better now that it was at the beginning. I’m not giving up on it.
x.ai, on the other hand, takes a simpler task and makes it work beautifully. As a virtual assistant, it schedules meetings on your behalf. That’s it. Before using x.ai, I would call people directly to coordinate calendars. I hated the seven back-and-forth emails to hash out dates, times, and locations. Now, when someone suggests a meeting, I send an email and copy “Amy.” [Or you can use “Andrew.” I prefer to hire women to combat AI gender bias.]
The setup is easy. You set preferences for overall schedule, locations, and day parts. If you like a certain tea shop in the afternoons on Monday and Thursday, Amy/Andrew will use that information to coordinate with your meeting partner. It allows you to add buffers for drive time, duration of phone calls or meeting types [coffee, lunch, after-work drinks], and other preferences.
It’s simple. After that point, Amy/Andrew sends all the emails and just adds the final meeting to your calendar. Using x.ai lifts my workload in a reliable manner, and Amy has fooled a lot of people into thinking she’s a real person. At $39/mo, it’s cheaper than anyone you could hire. [Limited free account also available.]
Both of these AI services address functions that the average businessperson would need. For $100 a year, you can get a simple website – with no obtrusive advertising banners – that designs itself. At $468 per year, your AI assistant can handle meeting requests with a single email. Here’s the real value: neither of these services require you to know anything about code or design. They are browser-based applications that shift and learn based on your feedback and interact with other people on your behalf. Even if you’re not able to play with IBM’s Watson, you can still use the power of AI.