Start-up

Creating a scheduling assistant called Evie powered by artificial intelligence

Mr Lee (left) and Mr Velu believe that artificial intelligence software will be the next step in productivity software.
Mr Lee (left) and Mr Velu believe that artificial intelligence software will be the next step in productivity software.PHOTO: MIMETIC.AI

All done through e-mail, Evie integrates artificial intelligence and schedule planning

Scheduling meetings and appointments can be a time-consuming affair, due to conflicting schedules, changes in plans or when taking time zones into consideration.

Busy executives outsource this administrative work to their personal assistants, but that is a luxury most workers cannot afford.

This was what plagued former Yahoo employees Praveen Velu and Lee Jin Hian, who that found that time spent setting up meetings - often across different time zones - broke their concentration and productivity.

But their annoyance became the spark they needed to create Evie, a scheduling assistant powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

"It's like your very own personal assistant," said Mr Velu, chief executive of mimetic.ai, the local start-up he and Mr Lee set up in 2014 to develop and work on Evie.

Evie is the first software of its kind which integrates AI and schedule planning, all done through e-mail. It is one of the latest ways firms here are riding on the AI wave, which is expected to generate more than $47 billion in global market revenue by 2020, according to market research firm IDC.

Launched last month, Evie syncs to its user's Google or Office 365 calendar. When activated within e-mail, the software will add, edit and suggest meeting or appointment slots.

Users add Evie to the cc list in the e-mail thread containing details on scheduling a meeting.

Using natural language programming, which allows software to understand human speech, Evie can interpret what is asked of it.

It could be a direct command, like "Evie, schedule a meeting next Tuesday at 2pm". Or, it could be something more conversational, such as "Evie, how is my Friday looking like?".

The software also takes into consideration responses by others in the e-mail thread, and does all the scheduling work in the background.

For example, someone could say "I can't make it on Thursday; Friday would be better", and Evie will respond with suitable times on that particular day.

Once all parties agree, the application will send out a calendar invitation for the meeting and update the original user's calendar with the confirmed meeting details.

"The beauty of Evie is its fire-and-forget nature. When I need to schedule something, I just fire off an e-mail to Evie. She takes over and I'm free from that mental load of checking my calendar, replying with when I'm free, and following up on the e-mail thread," said Mr Lee.

So far, Evie understands only instructions in English. If it has trouble understanding instructions, it will respond in the e-mail thread asking for clarification.

Evie's adoption is quite prevalent especially among tech-savvy start- ups, said Mr Velu, counting users in tech circles such as mobile-marketplace app Carousell, Zopim and online recruitment firm Hackertrail. He declined to reveal how many users the company has, but said there were a "few thousand users" during Evie's close beta testing last year.

Evie costs US$24.99 (S$36) a month. Clients on annual subscriptions pay just S$29 each month.

While Evie can have applications beyond scheduling meetings through e-mail - such as doing so through messaging apps like WhatsApp, for example - its founders say they are focusing on the e-mail aspect for the time being.

Both Mr Lee and Mr Velu also believe that artificial intelligence software will be the next step in productivity software.

"What Evie does, comes very naturally to people," said Mr Velu. "We are used to dealing with assistants, to corresponding with another human being. In fact, in most of the cases, a lot of people don't realise they are dealing with a machine. They say thank you to her, and ask to meet her when they finally hold that meeting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2016, with the headline 'Scheduling meetings, minus the fuss'. Print Edition | Subscribe