Scarlett Johansson, Facebook MoneyPenny and Corporate Productivity

The real-world analog to “Her,” a movie in which actor Joaquin Phoenix enjoyed a romantic relationship with a software program, may take place in a workplace setting, says Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield.

“Did you ever see the movie ‘Her’?” Slack Technologies’ founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield asks.

He’s comparing Samantha, the artificially intelligent software program voiced by Scarlett Johannson in the 2013 movie, with Slackbot, Slack’s built-in virtual office assistant. Soon, he says, Slackbot will have similar capabilities.

Slackbot is currently a helpful icon that pops up to provide tips and perform searches. It also, at times, delivers lines of humor programmed by a human writer.

“There’s a moment when Samantha reveals that she’s talking to thousands of other people,” says the former Cambridge University philosophy major who runs the team-chat startup valued at more than $2.8 billion. “That could happen here.”

Butterfield doesn’t plan on making Slackbot a sentient artificial intelligence like in the movie, but rather infusing the Q&A tool with natural language processing and machine learning so that it can do mundane, time-consuming tasks like scheduling meetings that take up a lot of employees’ time and attention.

The company, which last week turned two, just hired its first data scientist, and it’s looking to invest in artificial intelligence. Butterfield acknowledges the challenge, saying his company will need partners with major AI capability.

“Apple spent billions of dollars on Siri and worked on it for a very long time with hundreds of engineers and a huge dataset of voices – and it’s f–ing idiotic. Siri is nearly useless,” he says. Apple declined comment.

Siri said “After all I’ve done for you?”

Butterfield aims for Slackbot to be the virtual assistant to everyone on a team simultaneously, while also having access to their organization’s institutional knowledge: who is working on which projects, where they’re stuck, who is on vacation and when they’re getting back. He reckons that Slackbot could boost a company’s productivity by 20-30%.

Productivity, and whether it’s increasing or decreasing, is a bone of contention between Washington and Silicon Valley. Those citing official U.S. figures show that economic output per hour worked—the federal government’s formula for productivity—has barely budged in over a decade. Tech execs say the government isn’t factoring free services delivered over the Internet and mobile applications into its productivity numbers.

Others say that transformative innovation has been confined to narrow fields and hasn’t reached the full breadth of the economy.

Programs that can recognize natural language as spoken and written by humans and get better at its predictions over time have arguably boosted “productivity” in limited consumer domains such as searches through photo libraries, but some companies see a pot of gold if they can use these systems to make businesses more productive. Butterfield says Slack can capture a total addressable market of some 200 million knowledge workers (it currently has just under 1 million users.)

Facebook is also looking at how its AI tools could impact productivity.

Facebook’s artificial intelligence team is much further along than Slack on its smart virtual assistant, named after James Bond’s assistant in the spy movie series. The company said that its forthcoming MoneyPenny software learns to recognize human interactions in pictures and video, as well as analyze sentiment in human texts. It learns from the massive dataset generated by Facebook’s 1.4 billion users, and could turn some heads when officially unveiled. It’s not clear when and how MoneyPenny will make her appearance on the social network; the  company may roll out MoneyPenny with its Facebook At Work collaboration platform. If that happens, and if there is significant uptake of Facebook At Work, an intelligent Slackbot may have serious competition.


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Source: Scarlett Johansson, Facebook MoneyPenny and Corporate Productivity

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