Can a bot replace me? | The Sunday Times Style

‘Is it just like The Devil Wears Prada?” Of all the questions I’m asked about my job as editor’s assistant on a fashion magazine, this is No 1. I sit in a unique place: I’m one of the most junior members of staff, but have unrivalled access to the woman at the top. Fortunately, our editor, Lorraine Candy, bears very little resemblance to Miranda Priestly — but what they do have in common is their eye-wateringly busy diaries. On any given day, Lorraine might have a newspaper-wide conference, a meeting with PRs, lunch with a designer, a team production catch-up, phone calls with writers … the list goes on. As her assistant, it’s my job to manage it all.

I’m naturally quite efficient (I’m half German, so I love a filing system) and I’ve picked up the tricks of the assistant trade: always doing things with a smile, volunteering coffee runs and keeping a stack of never-ending lists. However, in 2018, my job is threatened. Artificial intelligence — thanks to the rise of machine learning — is growing ever more advanced and user-friendly. This is particularly evident in the workplace: according to recent research, automation will affect one in five jobs across the UK by the 2030s. Could an AI assistant really take my place?

For a week, I’ve decided to test the capabilities of one of the most popular AI assistants to hit the market. Clara Labs, a San Francisco-based company, with $4.5m in seed funding, has invented my robotic alter ego. Yes, its creation is an artificial assistant called, unbelievably, Clara. Powered by AI and human operators working in tandem, Clara’s services can be bought for as little as $99 a month. She acts like a real assistant, scheduling meetings, responding to emails, sending invitations and following up requests — she can even help out with job recruitment, according to the company’s latest update. She actions everything within 15 minutes and never makes spelling mistakes. In short, she’s perfect. After syncing her with your diary, you’re good to go — just copy her into emails and she’ll do the rest.

“I trust Clara fully to manage my calendar,” says Maran Nelson, 26, the co-founder and CEO of Clara Labs. I try to imagine Lorraine speaking about me with the same confidence and immediately resolve to work a bit harder this week. Still, while I should perhaps have more faith in Clara than I do in myself — after all, she doesn’t have the capacity for human error — I’m sceptical. I don’t fully trust Clara to send emails on my behalf, no matter how advanced her technology might be. Will she use the right tone? Will she send too many follow-ups, badgering important people?

Being an assistant is a nuanced job: you need tact, an encyclopedic knowledge of lunch spots and, above all, the ability to make a great cup of tea in two minutes flat. Lorraine likes her tea extra-milky; if she’s had a bad day, tea comes with Minstrels; and if it’s been a really bad day, only a Walnut Whip will do. I’ve come to learn her habits and foibles in intricate detail. I know what she’ll want for lunch depending on whether or not she’s been to the gym; I know her Pin number, her shoe size, when she’s in a bad mood and what kind of water bottle she prefers. In short, it’s a human relationship, and one I’m not sure a machine could ever handle.

Still, I decide to give it a go, and I put my first Clara-organised meeting in the diary: coffee with Louisa, our features editor. Clara responds, brightly suggesting a time and location. She sounds amazingly human and informal, but perhaps that’s because I’ve tried to be extra-clear in my email, as if writing to someone whose English isn’t very good. I imagine her trying to cope with Lorraine’s emails, which are often cryptic, to say the least. It’s only once you’ve known her a while that you can begin to decode them. I can’t see digital Clara having a clue. I reply, and Clara fires back a polite and natural response complete with a cheery sign-off. She follows up with a “quick question” about location, says she’s “happy to help” with anything else, and we’re done. I have an image of Clara in my head, and she looks like the girls I was terrified of at school, only more executive: all swishy blonde hair, meticulous manicure and smile of steel.

She is certainly doing a fine job of organising my own diary. She has grasped that I take a late lunch, usually at about 2pm, and never sets up evening activities before 7.30pm (I try to nip home before going out).

I get her to organise a few evening drinks for me (much to my friends’ amusement) and she accomplishes the task perfectly. However, when I ask her to suggest some good venues, I find her weak spot: a reply pings back almost immediately, saying she’ll “loop in Support to assist”. I soon get a message from an actual human (I checked) called Trina, who tells me that Clara isn’t yet able to research locations, but they hope she might one day. Overall, it feels like a professional service that lives up to its promise: an artificial assistant, supported by a back-up team of real people.

A few days later, though, Clara’s sunny Californian disposition, with her super-cheerful emails punctuated with excessive question marks and office jargon, is starting to grate. She’s always telling me she’ll “circle back”, asking me to “jump on calls” and, oddly, reminding me to “get back to the things I love”, which I presume means anything but my inbox. I never send emails like that, and it makes me wince to imagine Clara contacting some of the more important people in Lorraine’s address book.

I’ve also realised that as much as Clara saves time, she creates work, too. While she responds to emails quickly, she sends them just as fast, and I leave the office each day with a stack of her unanswered missives in my inbox. Clara’s biggest problem is that she can’t intuit, so you need to tell her exactly what you need — more often than not, this takes more time than it saves.

Clara may cost a fraction of the price of a real assistant — less than 5% of the average UK salary — but I’m still not sure she’s worth it. “Software can do the gruelling, tedious parts of most tasks, enabling us to focus on work that requires our judgment and creativity,” Nelson says, but I feel like she’s missed a trick. Taking on and diligently completing those mundane jobs is how you learn the ins and outs of your boss; it’s what being an assistant is about. Pass them over to a computer and you’re only getting half the picture. How I get on with Lorraine is as important to our working relationship as the actual job I do. That we have a laugh together (about our height difference, for example: she’s 5ft 2in and I’m nearly 6ft, so she can only tell me off when we’re sitting down) is crucial to us working well as a team.

As I sign off from Clara for the last time, she sends me a plaintive final email — “It was a pleasure working with you. Thank you kindly for the time we spent together: it means a lot to me!” — which makes me feel somewhat guilty for abandoning her, though I’m not sure I’ll miss her much. I don’t regret trying out Clara, as it has given me an insight into what I’d like from an assistant, for those heady, far-off days when I might be an editor myself. My conclusion? I hope my own future assistant will be human, and not just for efficiency’s sake. I learn something every day from working with Lorraine, and I’d like to be a mentor like that to someone else — rather than just programming a computer.


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