The Future Assistant

Artificial intelligence is the new bogeyman of the 21st century. AI used to be the old spectres of chess champion Deep Blue or Jeopardy whiz Watson. Nowadays, the media seems to randomly choose an industry and finds every way it could be replaced by robots. Even Hollywood, in the latest Avengers movie, found a way to replace both antagonist and protagonist with robots. This noise has been most apparent in the world of assistants.

Whether arising from Siri, Google Now, or any number of touted assistant phone apps, the next day, the AI from Her will collate all our scintillating e-mails, publish them on the Kindle, and make us all best-selling authors! Evidence seems to suggest this future. Executive secretary and administrative assistant jobs have been whittled away from 1.4 million jobs in 2002 to a little over 713 thousand jobs in 2014. The spectres of AI are coming!

Where did those jobs go?

Contrary to popular belief, those jobs were disappearing for different reasons. First, executive assistant jobs were lost in the Great Recession, but many were replaced by a corresponding increase in the general assistant role. That loss can be attributed to firms cutting staff, not replacing executive support staff, and in many cases, increasing the burden on the remaining assistants. Despite that, the total number of general admins grew from 1.8 million in 2002 to 2.2 million in 2014. To be fair, there is still an overall job loss since the recession, but the assistant will not be a bygone profession.

Second, executives for a long time started making the move toward virtual assistants. I’m not talking about off-shoring, but rather, finding staff in more inexpensive locations (e.g. McKinsey has support staff in Florida) and providing greater time flexibility for their staff. Many administrative assistants can make a decent wage in areas where the EA role is in demand – Nevada, Colorado, and Florida to name a few.

Scheduling Requires Agency – Full AI Takes Away Agency

What’s more? Most of an assistant’s work consists of email and calendar scheduling. There hasn’t been a revolution in scheduling and time management since Microsoft Outlook. That revolution has not and probably will not be completely automated away.

I’m sure Larry Page would love to get artificial intelligence to manage your calendar, but from what we’ve seen at Esper, you still want a human being to be partially in control. We’ve all been in situations where a printer prints uncontrollably or been helpless when the doors to public transportation slam in your face. Much the same way, we get angry at technology when rules (even though we may have set those rules) take away our agency. No one gets angry at technology because of its function, except for when we don’t have any control over it.

“Trust, But Verify” Technology

One egg, please.

When human beings lose control, they choose not to use the technology. A good example of this was when they came out with bake mixes for housewives in the early 1950s. Just add water and heat, but those bake mixes NEVER sold. One enterprising designer changed it so that all you needed was to crack an egg, add water, and heat. Now the world of quick bake mixes have been ingrained in memory ever since. Human beings want control (or semblance of it) in order to truly trust technology.

We’ve had assistants for awhile and any executive/EA pair will tell you that the foundation is trust. Like the old adage – “trust but verify,” the key to future technology is to give AI trust, but to always have a human verifying the technology. In much the same way, the future of assistant technology will not be capital-letter AI, but what I’d say is lower-case AI. What the technology Linus Torvalds refers to as “targeted AI, rather than anything human-like at all. Language recognition, pattern recognition…” Combined with human verification/control, it’s unlikely going to ever truly replace the human touch of an assistant, just enhance it.

The Future Assistant is a Cyborg

The future assistant will be a combination of a human assistant and technology – think a cyborg suit, a piece of technology that automates the future of administrative tasks. Instead of talking head, think suggestion machine – giving you choices for your next calendar event, the next course of action based on an e-mail, or the next step it figures out based on your data. Luckily, you’ll have a trusty assistant (who may be supporting more people or providing deeper support) keeping a watchful eye.

Far from the doom and gloom of job loss, the role of the assistant will evolve becoming a time manager or a project manager that supervises AI and other human beings. We may even see a reversal of the current trend and see growth in human beings working in administrative services, creating more jobs than we’ve ever seen.
But hey, what do I know? Lots of smart people see Rosie the Robot to be the end of mankind. I just hope I become an AI-enabled best-selling author before that time rolls around.

1 – “Executive Secretaries and Administrative Assistants,” Occupational Employment and Wages, 2002;

2 – “Executive Secretaries and Administrative Assistants,” Occupational Employment and Wages, 2014,

3 – “43-6014 Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal, Medical, and Executive,” Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2014

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