When we talk about virtual assistants, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are usually the first names that come to mind.
But let’s be honest: Those sorts of digital helpers are mostly just voice-controlled command systems—combined with a bit of basic automation. By and large, they don’t do a heck of a lot to actually assist us in any life-changing, efficiency-enhancing ways.
A secrecy-shrouded startup called Augment is convinced there’s room for something more. The company has been operating in stealth mode for the past year, with nary a detail beyond some mysterious teases about “the future of productivity” on its website. But now it’s shedding its cloak and opening its doors. And it’s rushing out of the gates with the bold promise of taking our virtual assistant expectations into entirely new dimensions.
Augment is launching in a limited, invite-only beta this morning. I had the chance to chat with Augment’s founders and sit through a demo of the service’s initial capabilities ahead of today’s grand opening. And let me tell you: Based on this early sneak peek, at least, the service seems incredibly intriguing—and absolutely packed with productivity-boosting potential.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ASSISTANT
The name Augment may not be familiar to most of us yet, but make no mistake about it: The folks behind it are no strangers to the tech universe.
The company’s CEO and creator, Jordan Ritter, is best known for helping to give us Napster way back at the turn of the last century (along with, yes, that other guy—you know, the one played by Justin Timberlake in the Facebook movie). His Augment cofounder and head of product, Daniel Ladvocat Cintra, is a former Googler who worked on the business side of the search giant for the better part of a decade.
The two of them, along with cofounder Saurav Pahadia and a small team of other artificial-intelligence-obsessed humans (plus one canine), are determined to introduce us to a whole new side of AI-driven assistance—one that works proactively on our behalves and helps us out in some genuinely meaningful ways.
So let’s dive into some specifics, shall we? In a nutshell, Augment adds numerous augments (get it?!) onto your existing devices. Those lowercase augments are best described as layers of intelligence that observe what you’re doing and then step in as needed to make sure you always have the info you need exactly when you need it.
If that concept rings a bell, congratulations: You’ve been paying attention. Philosophically, at least, Augment is strikingly similar to Heyday, a context-surfacing service I covered for Fast Company earlier this year. But while Heyday focuses exclusively on your browser and the info you interact with around the web, Augment works at the operating system level and attempts to serve much broader and more ambitious purposes.
One of Augment’s primary functions, for instance, is acting as an intelligent assistant for your various virtual meetings. With the software installed on your computer—Mac for now, with Windows support set to follow soon and then Android and iOS versions in the future—Augment keeps tabs on all of your work during the day. And since it’s a locally installed program, it’s privy to everything you open, be it a web app, a news site, a traditional note-taking or word processing program, or practically anything else imaginable.
When you head into a meeting, Augment tries to automatically pull together all the info you might need to prepare—everything it’s seen you interact with that could be relevant, ranging from previous emails and Slack messages with your fellow attendees to documents and websites you looked at while preparing. It assembles all that info into a custom-made docket and delivers it to you the moment your meeting begins.
“I have nine pages of apps on my phone, and none of them talk to each other—so how many places [would] I have to go hunt for all that context?” asks Ritter. “We bring it all together.”
Augment doesn’t stop helping out when the meeting begins, either: During your meetings, it can quietly take notes for you and then automatically create an intelligent summary along with a list of action items and even a full transcript. All of that info is then sent your way when the meeting finishes, along with a complete collection of your related documents and conversations.
And the goal is for it to work the same way, consistently—no matter which websites, apps, or services you might be using at any given moment.
“Because of where we sit in the stack, we’re not integrated into Zoom, Google Meet, or anything,” Cintra explains. “We’re actually tapping in at the OS level and so we tap [directly] into that audio data stream—so we’re able to transcribe conversations from any source that you might have your conversations on.”
Everything we’ve talked about so far has revolved around Augment’s first layer—its ability to assist you with meetings. But remember: Augment (the service) involves multiple augments (the layers of added information).
At launch, Augment will have three other areas of focus revolving around memory, calendar, and tasks. Those will allow you to access similar sorts of intelligently compiled and automatically assembled bits of context from other parts of your computing experience.
So, for instance, you might summon Augment while browsing the web and ask it to show you everything related to a pending contract at your company. In that scenario, Augment might surface relevant info from your notes, documents, contacts, past meetings, or anywhere else it’s seen you work on something related to that subject.
You could also call up Augment directly from your calendar—whether a local calendar program or a web-based calendar service such as Google Calendar—and have it give you extra context on the specific people involved in an upcoming meeting, culled from your web browsing history and past interactions.
It ultimately all boils down to the same basic principle of having an assistant act as an overlay and add an extra connective layer into your existing productivity setup—without requiring you to change your habits or learn anything new.
“For anyone building a new product, usually the first question is: What are you replacing in someone’s workflow? How are you going to change their behavior? How are they going to discover your product?” Ritter says. “Our answer is: No. All we do is overlay [on top of] whatever your system’s apps are, and we bring the missing context and smarts wherever they’re needed.”
Of course, you can’t have software running on your computer and watching your every move without wondering about privacy. Augment uses enterprise-level security, Ritter assures me, with all data encrypted both in transit and at rest and no info ever being viewed or shared in any way. The other hefty caveat is how well it all actually works in the real world. We’ve heard endless grand promises about the power of AI to assist us in various ways—both from the tech giants and from scrappy startups determined to beat the big companies at their own primary games. And more often than not, the practical benefits of each new innovation end up seeming far less life-changing in reality than they initially appeared in carefully controlled demos or marketing videos.
Today, the true test for Augment begins—as folks around the globe begin to get their hands on the technology and go beyond the polished presentations to see how it stacks up in day-to-day use.
If you want to experience Augment for yourself, you can sign up on the company’s site to request early access. It’ll be free for now, though only during this current beta phase. The specific pricing for Augment’s post-beta life is yet to be determined, but Ritter and Cintra say it’ll be built around a freemium subscription model, with certain features remaining free and the full experience requiring either an annual or monthly subscription (for individuals to start, with team options in the works).
It’s clearly still early days for this type of technology, but Augment’s software shows plenty of promise. For those of us who have been waiting for a true AI assistant to make our lives easier and do more than merely react to our commands, it’s a tantalizing glimpse at a long-promised future that might finally be within reach.