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Life When Alexa and Siri won’t do: the latest development in personal assistants

Vector flat style illustration depicting Voice assistant concept including line icons set.

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Ben Baldwin was pulling his children behind him in a wagon through Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks last fall when he remembered he needed to change the tires on his car. But between the demands of his job and raising two small children, he had neither the time nor the inclination to dig out a jack and start cranking lug nuts to replace worn out tires. Instead he texted Setter, a Toronto-based company that acts as personal assistant for the home, managing projects for clients from cleaning gutters to finding dog walkers. The next day, the company arranged for Baldwin’s car to be picked up, driven to a garage where his tires were replaced with new ones and his car returned to his house that same day.

“If something needs to be done right away, they say no problem,” says Baldwin, a 45-year-old who works in tech and lives in Toronto with his wife, a real estate agent, and their daughters, two and five years old.

In the past year, the company has delivered Baldwin washer fluid, helped him fix a broken stove and even dropped off pumpkins at his house for Halloween.

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Having a personal assistant was once reserved for high-powered professionals and those wealthy enough to employ one to help out around the house. All that seemed to change with the advent of AI assistants. Alexa, Siri and others of their type are becoming commonplace in homes across Canada. Nearly 40 per cent of Canadian adults use virtual assistants, according to a poll conducted by Media Technology Monitor in 2017. But Alexa can’t walk your dog. And Siri might be able to tell you how a furnace filter works, but can’t replace one for you. What these AI assistants have done, however, is created the expectation that more and more of our problems can and should be solved by someone else with just a few taps on our phones.

“We can run an entire office from your phone, so we expect to be able to do the same for our homes,” says Sean Wise, a professor of entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Add to that the fact that many people are starved for time. Nearly one in five Canadians between the ages of 15 and 64 feel caught in a “time crunch,” according to the most recent Canadian Index of Wellbeing report, released by researchers at the University of Waterloo in 2016

And so there is an increasing demand for assistants that can do more than tell you the weather when asked but that don’t require being hired on a full-time basis.

“Everybody has a to-do list of things they need to get done around the home, and they often just don’t have time to do it all,” says Stacy Brown-Philpot, chief executive of TaskRabbit, an on-demand network that connects people with “taskers” to handle small home-improvement jobs.

Founded in Boston in 2008, TaskRabbit launched in Toronto, Vancouver and Windsor, Ont., last year, and has plans to expand into Quebec in 2019. The most requested types of assistance for customers in Canada are furniture assembly, mounting things on walls and minor home repairs, Brown-Philpot says.

TaskRabbit is one of several on-demand home services companies, including Jiffy and Ask for a Task, that operate under the same basic premise: You explain the job that needs to be done, along with other details such as when it must be completed. The platform connects you with someone to do the work and provides a quote, taking a percentage of the price of the job.

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The range of tasks they’ll take on is massive, from repairing appliances to shovelling snow. But once the job is done, so is your relationship with the company.

Setter ups the on-call personal assistant in a number of ways. Every customer relationship begins with the company taking a 360-degree video of a client’s home to be able to troubleshoot problems, such as knowing to make sure to bring a ladder along to replace a light in a room with high ceilings or what will fit through doorways if something needs to be moved. It also sends customers regular reminders of things that need to be done, such as when to clean gutters, clear out sprinkler lines, change winter tires or replace a furnace filter.

The company’s typical customer is “the frazzled family,” says co-founder Guillaume Laliberte, who launched Setter in Toronto in 2016, expanded to San Francisco last November and plants to offer services in at least two more Canadian cities this year. “Their kids are young, they’re really busy at work and they just don’t need the stress of the home.”

Virtual assistants are beginning to provide some of the help that these services offer. Google’s virtual assistant is already able to call the restaurant of your choice and make reservations, for example. Many of the jobs we need done – eaves that need cleaning, shelves to hang or, yes, car tires to change – will always require the human element. But as the apps that provide these services know, as much as we might need actual people, we want to run our lives through our phones.

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