With the corporate world looking to harness the power of artificial intelligence technology, one Pasadena company throws its hat in the ring and shows the future just got a lot more animated.
By Donna Lugo
Have you ever been listening to an audiobook and wished it was being read to you by the voice of a friend or maybe your favorite celebrity? Or been shopping for an outfit, but wanted to forgo the hassle of trying something on? The enterprising minds at the Pasadena-based artificial intelligence company, ObEN, are here to tell you these scenarios are not only feasible, but not far off.
Taking its name from the German meaning “above” or “at the top,” ObEN was founded four years ago by 18-year Pasadena resident and USC Marshall School of Business grad, Nikhail Jain, and his business partner, Adam Zheng, as a way to mollify their forlorn children when they were traveling for business.
“Our kids would trouble our wives a lot when we were away, and we realized it was because they missed us and they were used to having us at home,” says Jain. “We felt that ‘How about we make a copy of us, that looks like us, that talks in our voice, that interacts with the kids, that has our personality and the kids could use that copy to miss us less?’”
Essentially, ObEN utilizes avatar intelligence to create user-friendly, mobile-friendly experiences as they see fit. In a demonstration, Jain presents his own personal avatar that bears his likeness in seemingly every way. The avatar then proceeds to rattle off sentences, first in English and then Chinese, in Jain’s own voice, with impressive clarity and fluidity, to illustrate the avatar’s learning capabilities. Jain contends that there is a use for ObEN’s technology in a bevy of industries including retail, medical, hospitality and entertainment. Since its founding, the company has received hundreds of millions of dollars in backing from global corporations such as the Japanese-owned SoftBank and most recently, from the Hong Kong billionaire shopping mall magnate, Adrien Cheng.
“To make something this complex, the engineering problems are tremendously hard; if you realize that, the only way to solve that is if we have the top talent in the world, amazing amounts of data and technology which can evolve and grow over time, which is A.I.,” says Jain.
So why set up shop in Pasadena as opposed to, oh maybe, the bay area like most start-up these days? “We hire a lot from Caltech, but this was a confluence of many different things. Initially we got a lot of pushback. People were saying, ‘Hey, you guys are a top A.I. company, why don’t you move to Silicon Valley?’ and we realized overall it worked better for us to be in Southern California. We try to hire the best people in the world.”
Now with a staff of 45, in addition to Caltech grads, ObEn boasts top tech talent from all over, including Carnegie Melon, M.I.T., USC and Oxford. Moreover, realizing that one of the top uses for their product would be in the entertainment industry, planting roots in Southern California, seemed like a no-brainer. This summer, ObEN announced a joint venture with different celebrities in order to create copies of them using A.I. and to make new interactive user experiences with them.
However, because the technology is so user-friendly, ObEN doesn’t want anyone misusing someone’s Personal Artificial Intelligence (or “PAI”) for things the owner has not authorized it to do. Therein lies the blockchain. Frequently mentioned in reference to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, simply put, a block-chain is like a ledger or database that stores information across a network of personal computers making them decentralized and distributed, so no one company or person owns the system. Everyone can use it and help run it making it difficult for an individual to corrupt.
ObEn works with a block-chain called Project PAI which allows them to authenticate the avatars so that the owner is solely in control and has the potential monetize it. “The block-chain gives you the element of control. It gives the element of authentication,” says Jain.
While some may take issue with the burgeoning use of artificial intelligence, such as questions of ethics, A.I. bias or security, Jain asserts that like most things in their infancy, A.I. needs to be “nurtured like a baby” and given time to learn about human behavior and adapt. “The way we look at these PAIs is like it’s not just a static thing, but also, it’s always learning, always evolving, always getting smarter over time.”