Thursday, March 26, 2015

Meet my assistant, Clara. I wish she could change her name and gender.

I just signed up for the new virtual assistant service by Clara Labs. It's a service that helps manage setting up appointments, using a virtual assistant named Clara Lovelace. I'm currently in the 14 day trial period.

You're instructed to write e-mails as if Clara is a real person, cc'ing "her" on your replies to requests for calendar invites. Your virtual assistant will then process the back and forth of setting up either an in person or phone call and put it on your calendar. I've used it now four times. The first two phone calls were set up perfectly. Clara is now in the process of scheduling an in-person meeting for me and another phone call. I'd guess that using this service has easily saved me 30 minutes if not more in the last 48 hours. It's very very good so far and I think worth the money.

But I have one problem.

With the basic service--which isn't cheap at over $100 per month, as much as Salesforce for example--you can't choose the name of your virtual assistant. It's always Clara Lovelace.

Several problems with that.

First, it's female. If I had to choose, I'd choose a male name because. Assistants are always female. If you can easily make a choice, why not address the gender in balance, at least perceptually?

Second there's that name. First person I talked with about this, a very high level tech industry CTO who hadn't heard of the company said, "isn't that a porn name?"

Of course "Lovelace" refers to Ada Lovelace who is the creator of the first computer algorithm. But I would bet that the average person would as easily see it as a reference to Linda Lovelace, with all of those porn star connotations that being a Lovelace in that context creates. And is it an honor or a slight to make a "daugher" of Ada Lovelace an assistant, especially in the context of ongoing conversation about diversity in the Silicon Valley workforce where this app will get its first traction? Was any of this discussed at Y Combinator where Clara Labs was launched?

So, I'm of two minds about the identity produced for me by having a virtual assistant named "Clara Lovelace" and keeping up the conceit with my email correspondents that this is actually a real person, or at least not telling them it's a virtual assistant. If a real person applied for a role as an assistant and they happened to have that name would I not hire them? Or course not. But it's annoying that I'm forced to think about these issues when some simple additional code could allow me choice. You can choose the name of the assistant with the higher level service, but that's 3x or so the price.

Third, because "it" is a "her" it makes me glance just ever so slightly in the direction of Joaquin Phoenix and I just don't to even have a hint of going in THAT direction!

Again, I don't want to take away from the fabulous effort of this startup. It has proven itself to be a great product, at least in these first few days. But I had to raise these issues.
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