While Siri and Alexa are busy getting you the day’s weather forecast or tracking down the name of the capital of some distant country, Xena has work to do.
The newest name on the conversational artificial intelligence landscape isn’t a voice-activated assistant like those employed by Amazon and Apple. But Xena will chat with employees and handle a number of tasks that can bog workers down on the job.
The tech is part of Xembly, a startup co-founded by CEO Pete Christothoulou, the founder and former CEO of conversational analytics company Marchex; CTO Jason Flaks, who was a leading contributor to the Xbox Kinect and HoloLens products at Microsoft; and CGO Peter Francis, former global growth leader at Qualtrics.
Xembly is a Madrona Venture Labs company and its early customers have included, among others, Twilio, Unearth and Pacaso. Spencer Rascoff, former Zillow CEO and co-founder of Pacaso, is a Xembly investor. Lightspeed Venture Partners is the startup’s lead backer and others include Ascend founder Kirby Winfield, DocuSign founder Tom Gonser, and former Microsoft CXO Julie Larson-Green.
“Everyone deserves to be supported like the CEO and every company needs their workers focused on high value work,” Christothoulou said about the desire to create a digital executive assistant for knowledge workers.
Advances over the past few years in AI and natural language processing have made that goal achievable and now Xembly aims to automate such things as scheduling meetings, creating agendas, taking notes, tracking action items, setting and managing to-do’s, and optimizing schedules.
Xena is a “conversational agent” sitting on top of the Xembly platform. It can understand conversations in Zoom or Google Meet, on Slack, and in email. It detects intention and then surfaces that intention to accomplish tasks and create efficiency across those other workplace tools.
After a Zoom call this week with Christothoulou and Flaks, Xena emailed me a meeting summary complete with action items — such as the need to follow up for screen grabs — and a bulleted recap of our 30-minute conversation.
“When I exit a meeting, at the end of the day, I need to send out notes,” Flaks said. “And what’s most important is, recap the meeting for me, for people that didn’t go, and tell me what the action items were. That’s a big deal. And that’s been our core focus.”
Launched in beta a year ago, Christothoulou initially set out to build something with Xembly that would rethink and improve meetings. The enterprise idea morphed into supporting workers in more ways.
The tech is complicated from a conversational AI standpoint — Xembly has to be a good listener and an active participant in meetings.
“We have to understand the whole dialogue,” Flaks said. “We have to maintain context, we have to understand if people are talking on top of each other.” Xembly then has to turn all of that into a summary that is readable and helpful.
Christothoulou said competitors, such as the transcription service Otter, have “adjacent tools,” but no one is organizing a suite of products that sits across the worker ecosystem the way Xembly does.
Flaks has more than 20 years experience in AI, ML and speech recognition technology. He spent six years at Marchex with Christothoulou, engineering the company’s conversational products. His experience has taught him that automation is a slippery slope.
“If you can automate to the point that the user doesn’t have to do really any work or very little work, they love it,” Flaks said. “If you wind up having to do more work than you would have had to do if you just did it yourself, then it’s not helpful anymore.”
Xembly employs 20 people, mainly in the Seattle area. Christothoulou, who is based in Los Angeles, said Xembly is not monetizing right now and the software will be free “for the foreseeable future.”