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Startup City: Artificial intelligence is not as scary as it sounds

Michelle Waite

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Frank Faricy, CEO of local AI startup XGen Ai stands in front of his custom-built deep learning graphics processing unit (GPU) cluster which the company uses for research and development of their hyper-personalized eCommerce solution. Photo by Michelle Waite.

Technology is such an integral part of our everyday lives. It keeps us connected and allows us to do more – better and faster than ever. 

My kids, who are living on opposite coasts of the U.S., one in San Francisco and the other in New York City, are a fingertip away because of technology. I am grateful for family text groups and FaceTime to stay connected and up to date on what is happening in their lives. Both of them visited over the most recent holiday weekend, and we were able to book dinners and other memorable outings on our phones and laptops using apps, QR codes and websites. 

The efficiency of the booking experience meant we had more quality time together. The ease of search on the internet meant we were able to quickly find some fun and interesting things to do in and around St. Pete: American Stage Theater Company’s outdoor performance of Footloose – The Musical, kayaking around Weedon Island, and, of all things – hatchet throwing. Who knew?

Artificial intelligence (AI), working behind the scenes, is an integral part of efficiently using many of the different technologies. From facial recognition in opening my iPhone … to travel navigation on our way to Weedon Island … to Alexa letting me know when Easter dinner was done, AI has made my life easier. 

But, like everything, when abused, it can also be dangerous.

I believe that artificial intelligence, when implemented in an ethical way, can truly make our world better.

What is artificial intelligence really?

In Beena Ammanath’s new book Trustworthy AI, she clears up the misconception of what AI is and is not. “AI does not ‘think.’ AI tools are in fact mathematical calculations that have been constructed such that the solution to the calculations accurately describes something in the real world.”

She writes, “AI is not one thing; it is many things. It is an umbrella term for a variety of models, use cases, and supporting technologies.” Various models and use cases exist including computer vision, natural language processing, speech recognition, planning, scheduling and predicting, recommendation systems and robotics.

I reached out to Ammanath recently, who further explained, “AI is among the most powerful tools we have ever seen. This technology has a great deal of potential to improve business and society as a whole. If AI is to be a force for good in addressing societal needs and challenges, we need to be able to trust it, and every organization has a stake in building tools worthy of our trust.” Through storytelling, Ammanath’s book lays out an actionable guidebook on AI ethics. 

She continues, “As organizations move quickly to deploy and use AI, they will have to take more responsibility to ensure trustworthy AI. That includes establishing ethical principles for the organization, being mindful of diversity and sustainability, and upskilling the workforce to be ready for the future with AI.”  

A Local Story of Using AI Ethically

Frank Faricy, a self taught system architect, eCommerce expert and AI technologist, is a zealous advocate for data privacy and ethical uses of AI and machine learning. His locally-based startup XGen AI provides the technology that companies use to give their consumers a hyper-personalized experience without collecting and using all of their personal data.

“I don’t believe in the way that we currently sell as a culture,” says Faricy referring to internet-based sales. He outlines how in today’s advertising on Facebook and Instagram and others, the process for selling involves following a person around the internet and inundating them with pictures of the potential purchase item they looked at until they buy it. 

Faricy goes on to explain, “We are reinventing the way this process occurs. It was on the bet that privacy is going to become a big issue and advertising will suffer from that. And obviously, that is exactly what is happening now.”

Solving for this is what spawned his current company XGen AI. It was based on the premise that rather than telling a customer what they should see and buy, you could instead ask them or understand what they would like to see, and then present it to them in an intelligent way. “In a nutshell, what we do is sell directly to eComm brands – they can use our platform and integrate it into Shopify or whatever they are on … and it creates a totally unique store for every visitor that comes to the site,” explains Faricy.

For the brands’ customers, it drives a better online experience. The system adapts to the unique customer in real time to what they do. In line with Faricy’s strong beliefs related to data privacy, they’ve developed a system that drives the right experience without having to identify who the customer is. What they call “100% anonymized machine learning” means that they can identify the behavioral characteristics of the consumer on the site – not their personal information – while still delivering a highly personalized offering.

“Really sophisticated machine learning systems or models can actually predict what users need within the (online) session,” explains Faricy. “Machine learning done correctly has all of the knowledge about that brand and the products and can make very rapid decisions. It’s like having the ultimate sales rep. If you had a sales rep that has talked to a million customers and has lived for 500 years, it would start to be intuitive by nature.” A good sales rep can then offer up the products that the customer is likely to desire or enjoy. Machine learning, which is an integral part of artificial intelligence, can do this at scale.

Faricy’s goal has always been to be the shining star of ethics when it comes to developing a personalized experience for a consumer. What they’ve discovered is that using artificial intelligence can actually protect a consumer’s privacy and provide an even better experience for the consumer while at the same time giving deeper insights for the brand. It’s the best of both worlds.

It’s clear that AI is here to stay. As innovative companies continue to leverage its power to help improve our daily lives, it’s important that governments, companies like XGen AI and other organizations establish laws, systems and principles to ensure that we are all protected.

Startup City will continue to explore topics on what it takes to have a thriving startup ecosystem on a bi-weekly basis through stories and thoughts of local residents. 

Michelle Waite is the VP of Marketing at Florida Funders, a locally-based venture capital firm and angel investor network which enables tech startups to thrive through monetary and business-intellectual capital. She has invested in, co-founded and worked for tech startups for the last 10 years. She counts herself lucky every day to work for and alongside some pretty amazing entrepreneurs. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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