Virtual assistants step into the enterprise

Artificial intelligence covers a large spectrum of disruptive technologies that will one day change the way we do business. Virtual assistants are a good place to start.

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Amy Ingram sends a short email to her boss's colleague, suggesting dates and times when the two could get together for coffee. She offers up the available times that the boss usually sets aside for such meetings.

Little does the colleague know that she isn't interacting with a human being. "Amy Ingram" is a name used by a virtual assistant that relies on artificial intelligence to schedule meetings.

Available from a New York-based company called X.ai, Amy has a LinkedIn page -- one that's conspicuously missing a photo. Jason Madhosingh relies on Amy to maintain his calendar. Amy has been taught to interpret his emails, which she is copied on, and if any messages mention breakfast, lunch, coffee or a phone call, she takes steps to schedule meetings in time slots he has set aside for each type of event.

"It has proven to be a really useful tool," says Madhosingh, head of product marketing at 1stDibs, an online marketplace for fine art and furnishings. "I started using it personally, but now I've discovered that it's very easy for me to use Amy professionally to schedule external meetings with people outside my company."

Virtual assistants like Amy (who's sometimes known as Andrew) have become wildly popular for consumers and are now crossing the line from personal to professional use.

By the end of 2016, two-thirds of consumers in mature markets will regularly use virtual personal assistants in their daily lives, according to Gartner.

Virtual assistants are the most basic form of artificial intelligence -- the ability of a machine or software to mimic human intelligence through experience and learning, and perhaps answer intricate questions and solve complex problems.

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