Wearing loose jeans, trainers and a hoody, 30-year-old data scientist Rand Hindi passionately explains to me the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on technology in the future. In town for the BDL Accelerate 2015 Conference in Beirut, Hindi was giving a talk on how AI is going to make technology disappear.
With a PhD in Bioinformatics from University College London, two graduate degrees from Singularity University in Silicon Valley and THNK in Amsterdam and an Innovator under 35 award from MIT Technology Review, I paid close attention to what he was saying.
His picture of the future looks less like a scene from Fifth Element and more like the seashore of Costa Rica. His TEDx talk explaining how annoying notifications got during his vacation with his girlfriend is thought provoking. Today there are around 5 billion connected devices and this figure is expected to reach 21 billion by 2020. As more devices get connected – from our coffee maker to our fridge to our AC – it will become almost impossible to manage. “Those devices can not continue on being in competition for your attention. They need to be integrated into your life,” says Hindi.
He envisions a world where technology will be pushed to the background. “We are working on putting AI in all of these objects so we can anticipate what you need; the devices can talk to each other and very infrequently bother you” he adds.
A smarter smartphone
Through Snips, a company he founded in 2013 with 24 team members on board of which 50 percent are data scientists, Hindi started his ambitious plan of making technology disappear by developing a layer of intelligence for the efficient use of your smartphone.
Initially set up as an innovation lab, Snips partnered with the French National Railway SNCF to predict public transport passenger flow in the Paris region. By analyzing several features such as rain, bank holidays, number of transport systems in the city and population density, they were able to build an app to accurately inform people of availability of seats on trains. While they also started exploring with transit planning to enable the railway system to efficiently manage trains and their energy consumption, the project was eventually drawn to a close. “Despite their eagerness to do innovative stuff, putting that kind of thing in production (…) is very hard, because if the model fails and people can’t go to work, it has a big impact,” says Hindi.
About one year ago, the company’s focus shifted to solving how people interact with technology in a world with billions of connected devices. Snips’ first product consists of an AI that makes it more convenient to use your smartphone by predicting which apps you need to use. Currently in beta version, Hindi shows me what the app will look like and it seems pretty cool. Let’s say you want to head to a restaurant: you go on the Snips app, type in the restaurant’s name and a number of apps that could be relevant to you are listed such as Google Maps to locate the restaurant, Uber to order a taxi to get there, Four Square for reviews and conversations including emails and Whatspps you sent to friends about the restaurant. When you are in a meeting and it comes to an end – which it can tell by reading calendar data – it can suggest a taxi app to take you to your next destination with the location already inputted – which it can do by reading location data. “You are spending up to four minutes doing something on your phone which you can spend 10 seconds on,” he adds.
Privacy by design
Snips has severe competition from the big guns such as Google and Apple. How does it stand out? Privacy according to Hindi. He also adds that Google Now is focused on delivering information whereas Snips wants to link users to services but the main difference he stresses on, is that everything Snips does is private by design. They do not have a server, as they believe they should not know everything about their users to offer them the service.
When asked how he would deal with governments that are increasingly pressuring tech companies for information to address terrorist concerns, he emphasizes again on the importance of privacy. “If abused, privacy can be deadly to people. Imagine if ISIS had access to files like that?” he asks.
“I’m not worried about what people will do today; I’m worried about what people might do in the future and the only way to protect against that is through privacy by design; that data should not exist in the first place.”
Why it matters
Artificial intelligence is needed to help us manage an increasing number of connected devices.