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What I Want From AI at Work: A Secretary and an Intern

by Craig Roth  |  July 19, 2017  |  Comments Off on What I Want From AI at Work: A Secretary and an Intern

What do office-based knowledge workers want an AI to do for them? Specific industries may have their own jobs or roles that can be turned over to some kind of AI, but I’m thinking about general purpose knowledge work that applies across industries and geographies. My AI would be there to help me, not replace me. It would allow my valuable abilities for creativity, content creation, speaking to clients (and blogging!) to shine through by taking away tasks that have less value-add and differentiation.

When I think about how to describe what my personal AI would do, I think about a combination of a secretary and an intern:


I’m thinking of the 1950’s-1970’s types of secretary: the type that my mother was. She worked as secretary to an economics professor who, coincidentally, studies the history of automation and knowledge work and is now widely quoted in extrapolating its future. She would decide which phone calls got through, which just required a “while you were out” slip, and which to ignore.

This went well beyond assisting with administrative tasks and was embedded with his non-administrative (core responsibilities) work. She would prioritize mail. She would organize all the paperwork for a new paper or conference he was working on for easy reference later. She’d type up manuscripts and was great at fixing spelling, grammar, and even some logical inconsistencies or repetition. And if a personal call from his wife or about his kids came in she was right on top of it, interrupting him as necessary. And of course she would remind him of business deadlines as well as personal birthdays and anniversaries.

She was a trusted gatekeeper, organizer, prioritizer, reminder, and sometimes a proxy for routine responses.


Ah, the carefree days of the intern … at least it was for me. I was a puppy of a worker – lots of capability, boundless energy, cute as a button, and none of that experience or organizational knowledge that tends to hold one back.

I was teachable, capable, clean slate, worked quickly, and was worth training so I could help with future tasks


I have access to a group administrative assistant and she’s great, but doesn’t have the time to be as involved in understanding my daily work as needed to predict my needs and she doesn’t have the mandate to manage my content and communications (or personal life intrusions into my work life). And we have a few interns running around here now and then, but I don’t have one.It seems more likely I’ll get an AI or VPA (virtual personal assistant) that does these tasks before I’ll get a dedicated secretary and dedicated intern. And luckily the tasks I describe above are ones that a combination of automation, analytics, and machine learning can do for me. There are already lots of features in existing cloud email products as well as separate tools that do these sorts of functions. I just need more of them, and for them to be unified (maybe as a manager of my interns and secretarial pool!). Sometimes these appear within existing tools, while others I’ll want to communicate with it as a bot, using natural language.

If everyone at my company had this personal AI they could communicate with each other so they could share tricks they had learned. The cliche “I’ll have my people talk to your people” could be reborn as “Let’s do that! I’ll have my AI talk to your AI …”

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Category: ai  automation  information-work  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

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