Written by Andrew Seale
Roy Pereira’s made a rival artificial intelligence exec his assistant. Rather, the CEO and founder of Zoom.ai has named the automated assistant he built from scratch after one of his competitors.
It’s cheeky, but hey, “you can name it whatever you want,” says Pereira with a laugh from his office in Toronto’s OneEleven, a scale-up innovation hub. The point, he insists, is making your life simpler with an automated assistant.
“We all have calendars to manage, expenses to manage… these tools add up,” says Pereira adding that most people juggle upwards of 20 tools. “You end up spending half your day doing all this clerical stuff instead of working and that’s why we’re taking work home, (why) we’re less productive.”
According to Pereira, computers have trained us to operate like them, to handle the admin. But we’re better than that. “High-level stuff, that’s what we’re good at, computers are horrible with that.”
Pereira launched Zoom.ai in 2016 after more than two decades divided between startups and major enterprises in both the security technology and advertising technology spheres in Toronto, Ottawa and Silicon Valley.
The goal was to create a tool that liaises with internal company databases and across platforms in order to schedule meetings, and “automate repressive tasks that we need to do in order to do our jobs that are now taking way too much time.”
Using a simple chat window interface, Zoom.ai lets users schedule and cancel meetings, briefs them on who they’re meeting up with, makes introductions, sends important reminders, searched out flights, schedules Ubers, and builds corporate FAQs so HR, IT and other departments don’t waste time answering the same questions over and over.
“Say you have a meeting and need to take a cab, it should know that (and ask) ‘want me to schedule an Uber? it’s going to take 50 minutes to get their, so I’ll schedule one for 60 minutes before,’ ” says Pereira. “That’s the kind of stuff computers do well – it’s not reacting to something you’ve asked it to do, it’s anticipating that you’re going to need it.”
The AI sphere in Toronto and Canada in general is set to bloom. Over the past few months, both industry and government have thrown their weight behind it, investing $500-million and propping up groups like the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, Toronto’s Vector Institute and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute.
But it’s not the first time Pereira has tapped into the next big thing from the onset. In 2007, he saw the upswing in Facebook use (“Toronto was the biggest city on Facebook in 2008,” says Pereira) and launched a series of events for Facebook developers called Facebook Camps. Shortly thereafter he launched a Facebook marketing firm.
He says it was around this time, four years after he’d returned from Silicon Valley, that he noticed Toronto was getting it’s “mojo.”
“I remember my first message back to my friends in California (saying) I can’t believe the amount of talent here,” recalls Pereira. “Companies started to get acquired but entrepreneurs would stick around – and that’s just grown exponentially.”
This time around, Toronto seems primed to play a role in the AI revolution with Zoom.ai and a handful of other startups pushing the limits of AI and machine learning.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities to leave, to go back to California,” he says. “I’ve been here for 14 years and in the last ten years or so there have been no temptations – I’m super proud about Toronto.”