Clara is applying to be your virtual personal assistant, no benefits required

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Maran Nelson, 24, is the co-founder and CEO of Clara Labs, a machine-learning software service that takes over scheduling tasks via email. (Photo: Chris Wiggins, Special for USA TODAY)
353 CONNECT 102 TWEET 8 LINKEDIN 2 COMMENT EMAIL MORE SAN FRANCISCO – As with many tech company epiphanies, Maran Nelson had hers in the wee hours of the morning.
It was 2 a.m., and Nelson had scheduled herself to call an important potential investor in Singapore. But her time zone calculation was off. She missed the call and the sale. And eventually that start-up ship didn’t set sail.
“That’s when I realized that any business person with a very busy schedule is potentially setting themselves up for many costly micro-errors per day,” says Nelson, 24. “So we thought, what if it didn’t have to be that way?”
The "we" is Nelson and her childhood friend from Plano, Texas, Michael Akilian. The "what" is Clara Labs, their 18-month-old creation that moves from a year-long beta testing period that garnered hundreds of corporate customers to a public launch Thursday.
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The company’s product is deceptively simple. By subscribing to Clara Labs – monthly rates are $49 and up – subscribers get access to a machine-learning, software-driven virtual assistant dubbed Clara, who when looped into a conversation by email is capable of scheduling appointments.
At present, Clara works in tandem with a user’s Gmail calendar, though Microsoft Exchange- and iOS-compatible versions are coming next. The company's seed round was led by Sequoia Capital, but neither she nor the VC firm will cite a figure.
Over the last year, Clara Labs has acquired hundreds of business customers who have helped the service get smart on natural language communication. But as a backstop, contractors are on hand to push out clarification emails so tasks are completed correctly.
Clara Labs' product, dubbed Clara, is a virtual assistant that when looped in on email conversations is able to schedule appointments based on the requests in those emails. (Photo: Clara Labs)
“If Clara isn’t sure what kind of an appointment it is, we may push out an email that says, ‘Can you confirm this is a coffee meeting?’” says Nelson. “I’ve heard people say we’re building artificial intelligence, but really we’re just building a relationship that you can depend on. It’s just a thesis for building really intelligent software.”
Those with corporate Clara Labs contracts can rename Clara and give it an internal email address. Nelson says some companies have given their Claras LinkedIn profiles and Twitter accounts, while “one company recently told us that Clara was their employee of the month for many months in a row.”
One big fan is Danielle Morrill, founder of Mattermark, which provides data analysis to VC firms and other private dealmakers. She and Nelson met when the Texan came to Mountain View in the summer of 2013 as part of a Y Combinator class.
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When the first company idea - focused on bringing A/B testing to product creators - Nelson worked on went bust, Morrill suggested in early 2014 that Nelson temporarily serve as her assistant. Weeks later, Nelson and Akilian had a better idea. They launched Clara for Morrill, manually emailing and scheduling her appointments while their new software learned the ropes.
“Maran has the X-factor about her, besides just being very smart,” says Morrill, who says she is a “tiny investor” in Clara Labs as well as its first customer. “At this point, Clara has replaced a few people in my head count.”
That’s a win for Mattermark’s payroll, but also the opening to a thorny issue.
Clara Labs Co-Founder and CEO Maran Nelson sits down to talk about her company's machine-learning virtual assistant.
Nelson says the idea behind Clara Labs isn’t to replace humans with tech, but rather to remove more tedious human jobs so people can aspire to do more with their time and skills.
“People have been scared for a long time that robots will kill our jobs and we’ll have nothing to do, and I don’t believe in that idea,” says Nelson, who remains a credit shy of graduating from the University of Texas, where she studied human intelligence while Akilian worked on machine learning research.
“You want people to be empowered to do things with their time that they love doing,” she says. “We’re solving for tasks that are menial and cumbersome. If that task goes away, it hardly means there’s nothing left to do.”
Akilian approaches the issue with a science fiction writer’s aplomb.
The most technically difficult part of creating a machine-learning assistant is the learning part, specifically the understanding of natural language. (Photo: Clara Labs)
“Taking the assumption that building fundamentally intelligent machines is inevitable, the question isn’t, ‘is AI taking over the world,’ but actually ‘what precautions do we need to take and philosophical questions do we need to answer to move forward … this is the question worth talking about and we hope Clara can play a larger role in answering over time.”
Michael Jordan, a machine learning expert and computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, compares it to another technology service that's made some human activities obsolete. “What (Clara Labs) is building isn’t a robot in that classical AI dream, but rather just technology that is helping make life easier for humans,” he says. “Google was the same thing, and it has quickly become for many of us our memory.”
Michael Akilian and his childhood friend Maran Nelson are the brains behind Clara Labs, a software-driven virtual personal assistant that can schedule meetings via email. (Photo: Clara Labs)
Clara is an echo of a 2003-2008 project he worked on called Calo, an effort by SRI International to create a virtual personal assistant whose spin-off tech includes Apple’s Siri, Jordan says.
“The key problem with all of this is natural language processing,” he says. “What you can’t do now is develop a virtual assistant that can do something for everyone. But on a targeted level, you can.”
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Notes Pedro Domingos, University of Washington computer science professor and author of The Master Algorithm , “In a decade, living without a virtual assistant that learns all about you will seem impossible as living without a smartphone today. Clara Labs is onto something big, but the competition will be stiff,” featuring players such as Jarvis and x.AI.
Nelson is fine with that challenge. And she insists if Clara’s public launch soon takes the company into the stratosphere, she’s not interested in selling.
“I don’t want glory, I want to make a difference,” she says, taking in the city from the roof of her company’s elevator-less apartment building, one floor of which serves as a work space to 13 employees who include defectors from Nest, Stripe and Facebook.
“The big question out there with tech these days seems to be, who will aggregate what parts of your life?” says Nelson. “Trust is key, and it’s what differentiates us.”
USA TODAY's Change Agents series highlights innovators and entrepreneurs looking to change business and culture with their vision. E-mail Marco della Cava a[email protected] . Follow him on Twitter:@marcodellacava
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