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Inside “Fin”, the elite human/AI assistant


“I have FOMO for the future”, says Sam Lessin. That’s why his startup Fin is working backwards from a far-off tech utopia. One day, computers with some human help will answer our every beck and call. Today, Lessin is teaming them up. Every day, Fin gets smarter.

For $1 a minute, 24/7, Fin gets your digital chores done. Message, email, or speak a request and a real person will snap into action, augmented by a machine intelligence toolkit built from all the tasks Fin’s tackled to date. Sure, it handles research, scheduling, commerce, and customer support calls. But it also learns your habits, negotiates for you, and conquers complex jobs like creating a website.

Now after two years and funding from top investors including Kleiner Perkins, Fin is opening up to more customers and press. “We’ve really intentionally talked to no one” says Lessin, a former Facebook VP who sold it his file sharing startup Drop.io.

That’s a vastly different approach than most of the boisterous AI startups have taken. Lessin tells me “There’s been this crazy hype cycle. ‘Everything’s a bot. Bots are awesome. Everything’s an assistant’” Lessin laughs. “All these things fucking suck.”

Converting Money Into Time

Fin was determined not to suck, even if that meant staying quiet. Lessin and co-founder Andrew Kortina have tinkered and tested Fin since mid-2015. “I had done Venmo” Kortina says, downplaying his co-founder role and its sale to PayPal, “and was then doing nothing. I heard Sam was also doing nothing and that piqued my interest as he’s an old friend.”

Brainstorming led them to the thesis that “the internet is broken as an information machine” Kortina tells me. They saw a greater destiny than entertainment, distraction, and big enterprise. So in Fin’s first incarnation, the duo swapped neglected memos and to-do lists, and tried to find what they could get done for each other. Plenty had been falling through the cracks.

“I’m okay about doing menial things for colleagues but I’ll just let all that stuff in my own life slip” Kortina admits. “I wouldn’t go to the dentist for years. I didn’t have health insurance after college for 10 years. My credit score was terrible because I had some bill I wouldn’t figure out how to pay.”

Most people have similarly boring tasks they loathe spending time dealing with. You could call the cable company to fight a price hike or research restaurants and hunt for a reservation. So could Fin. And thanks to Uber we’ve grown accustomed to being able to trade money for that time back, sidestepping slow public transportation or looking for parking when we’re in a rush.

Fin co-founders Sam Lessin (left) and Andrew Kortina (right) in front of the flag of Finland

While it’s easy to imagine Fin as merely a first-world luxury for the lazy, and it’s great at that, it’s also a productivity tool that can let people achieve more of what only they can do. Kortina talks about Fin as a way to “instantly offload” chores.

Even if you could power through a task faster than Fin could second-hand and keep the dollars, “It’s not just the cost of doing that thing yourself. It’s the context switching” Kortina explains. “It’s so hard for me to get into a really good state of concentration and flow and creativity, and when I get into that state I don’t want to be interrupted.”

Reverse Engineering Science Fiction

Fin’s far from the only personal assistant startup trying to save you time, but many of the others fail due to hubris, relying to heavily on their own code as the answer to every question. “The mistake is looking at machine learning and thinking we’re so close to this general intelligence” Lessin insists. Replacing humans outright isn’t the answer. “The future is people helping people”.

Competitors that can go AI-only are restricted to narrow sets of tasks, like x.ai for meeting scheduling. Traditional and virtual assistant services can be inefficient. Facebook’s M assistant, also uses a combo of humans and AI but is free and hasn’t been opened up to the public.

One service similar to Fin called GoButler was forced to pivot to solely automated assistance, and eventually sold as scrap to Amazon. Fin’s most remaining direct competitor is Magic. It’s cheaper at $0.59 per minute but only takes request via text message. Lessin moonlights as a partner for Slow Ventures, which participated in Magic’s $12 million 2015 Series A, which raises some concerns about conflicts of interest he wouldn’t comment on. [Update: More examples of competitors were added to this paragraph.]

But wait, isn’t AI supposed to take everyone’s jobs? Lessin envisions a new industrial revolution instead. He cites cobblers making a few shoes while waiting around the shop for customers, struggling to match fluctuating demand. But with steam and electricity “you had a new source of power. It’s not like power stopped work. You had humans doing what they were good at, tech doing what tech was good at, and you had way more shoes.” If the new jobs offset those obviated remains to be seen.