Every day someone has a “big” idea about how to make things easier for consumers. Why do things the hard way when there is always at least one simpler way to get things done? That is exactly the sentiment of Andrew Greenstein, the founder of SP Appworks. Founded in 2012, this privately owned company is finding ways each day to take concepts that its clients have and breathe life into them to help build an online presence. Andrew and his team of approximately are breaking all barriers to bring their clients the most engaging technology possible.
NE: Can you share a story that inspired you to get involved in AI?
AG: I heard about a study that Microsoft did a few years back. They analyzed the Bing search terms of people that were diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and found that, in most cases, they could have detected and diagnosed the cancer up to three months earlier based on their search results alone. The idea of predictive health care really blew my mind and got us interested in jumping onto the AI train.
In Early 2016, SF AppWorks decided to refocus our future efforts on AI (we prefer Augmented Intelligence to Artificial Intelligence). To spur innovation and get the entire team up to speed, we held a series of brainstorms that culminated in an internal Hackathon. Twenty-five people (almost half of the team!) participated, spending 24 grueling, fun, blurry hours brainstorming, planning, coding, ripping up plans, restarting, then struggling to finish a proof of concept by demo time. In the end, we built working prototypes of a smart mirror, a therapeutic chatbot, a digital travel agent, a predictive shopping platform, and an intelligent restaurant suggestion guide.
For years SF AppWorks has had a fascination with the connection between the human mind and computers, and has tried to explore how artificial intelligence can be used to address mental health issues. As every once in awhile we get to have a little fun prototyping advanced concepts, at the 2016 TechCrunch Disrupt London Hackathon, our team pushed the limits of technology by creating a voice journal with AI powered real-time sentiment analysis. We built the product end-to-end in less than 24 hours, then took first place out of hundreds of developers.
NE: Describe your company and the AI/predictive analytics/data analytics products/services you offer.
AG: SF AppWorks is an award-winning progressive digital agency that specializes in rapid prototyping and the integration of automation and AI. Our full-service software development team has helped our clients conceptualize and build their digital presences and online platforms, while keeping a keen eye on the evaluation and integration of new technologies that offer competitive advantage. Our work has been featured by TechCrunch, Fast Times, and Google. When we conceptualized this platform, our criteria was straightforward. It had to be scalable. It should be something that could serve our current startup and enterprise clients. It should be powered by AI. After 2 months of heavy market research, brainstorming, and planning (including a series of hackathons dedicated to AI), we came up with Handlebar.ai – an engagement platform that uses AI to predict when users are going to quit and help our clients automate the notifications and offers that can drive them back
NE: How do you see the AI/data analytics/predictive analysis industry evolving in the future?
AG: We’ve built a lot of AI-powered chatbots and tools and, though they are interesting and novel, they only work well with incredibly focused-tasks. We feel that predictive marketing will continue to grow, but that the real AI-innovation will be around ‘just-in-time’ marketing – that is, crunching massive data sets to predict exactly when to hit a user with a message. Timing is everything, as they say.
NE: What is the biggest challenge facing the industry today in your opinion?
AG: Privacy concerns are real and regulation to address those concerns need to be crafted sensibly. An overreaction, or regulations cobbled together hastily, could have devastating effects on the tech industry’s ability to harness and utilize data (for good). Gathering and utilizing data while protecting user’s privacy will have to be delicately balance, and that will be our biggest challenge as innovators.
NE: How do you see your products/services evolving going forward?
AG: We offer small market products focused on helping users improve physically, mentally, and emotionally. Right now, we are targeting very specific use cases, like marathon training with our AI-powered SportMe app. The better we get at this, the broader the market we will target. Eventually, we’d like to the take lessons we learned training people and use them to create a platform for more generalized improvement. Every person in this world can benefit from improved mental, physical, or emotional fitness.
NE: What is your favorite AI movie and why?
AG: Minority Report – it raised some interesting questions about predictive crime and how the government could abuse information. We are now at a point where the technology to actively monitor communications and flag behavior that may lead to a crime is already being used in some cases. That knowledge will raise sticky questions about how and when to deal with these potential threats.
NE: What type of advice would you give my readers about AI?
AG: Integrating AI-powered chatbots into the digital strategy of a business generates a series of advantages. They open a direct line of communication to your users. They allow you to quickly test out new distribution channels like Facebook Messenger and SMS. They reduce the need for customer service resources. They create magical user experiences. However, for chatbots to be effective they need to be carefully crafted to address very specific use cases. The more focused the use case, the more natural the chatbot will feel.
What distinguishes chatbots from classic search queries is that they will try to determine the intent of your words, usually through various natural language processing mechanisms. When a computer understands your intent, it can provide you with precisely the information or content you are seeking.
AI is powerful, but it’s not a replacement for humans. Rather, it can work as a great assistant to humans. Rather than trying to design an AI-powered product that does everything, try to design one that helps YOU do one thing better.
NE: How does AI, particularly your product/service, bring goodness to the world? Can you explain how you help people?
AG: All of our products have a common mission – to help people improve. SportMe helps 5k to marathoners train to accomplish an incredible goal. People who train usually have a bigger motive than completing the race – they want to lose weight, improve performance, or just feel better about themselves. Every person that we get across that finish line has made a positive change in their life. We will continue to build products with that singular focus in mind.
NE: What would be the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you during your company’s evolution?
AG: When we first started out, we had a very small portfolio and it was hard to attract new clients. When we lost our main client, we struggled to survive. One day my co-founder excitedly told me that he had found us a new client, and just in the nick of time! We were out of cash and wouldn’t be able to go on much longer. I was so relieved, but when I asked him who the client was, he said “uh…my wife! She’s willing to put some cash in to fund an idea that we think is cool”. That was such a great, supportive gesture, and totally not helpful to our ability to succeed as a business. We decided to accept the hard truth about cash flow and we both went on to find ‘day jobs’ to support us through this time.
We kept working on the business, and eventually we were able to convert both of our employers into clients for SF AppWorks. The decision to get day jobs actually saved our company. Eventually, we transitioned back to full-time and we have never looked back.
NE: What are the 3-5 things that most excite you about AI? Why? (industry specific)
AG: Understanding user patterns, organizing data, and the promise of predictive health. I am most excited to see how AI can revolutionize healthcare. Imagine if you stepped in front of your smart mirror in the morning and your doctor popped up and said “We noticed some strange things going on inside of you. Can we run a test?”. We could cure diseases when they are in their infancy. We could measure how food and exercise are impacting your body and offer personalized plans of action. In a way, it’s like giving humans superhuman abilities, and don’t we all want to be superheroes deep down?
NE: What are the 3-5 things worry you about AI? Why? (industry specific)
AG: My biggest worry is already happening – governments and businesses who have a much better understanding of how to harness user data will continue to use that data to manipulate outcomes. It’s ironic that information is supposed to democratize the world and even the playing field, but it can just as easily be used to create tyrannical structures.
Aside from that, abuse of privacy, particularly by the government, could actually get pretty scary if you think about it.
NE: Over the next three years, name at least one thing that we can expect in the future related to AI?
AG: Better ads! A lot of big companies are opening up AI platforms to help marketers sell better. Though AI will power the insights and strategies that marketers employ, it will ultimately result in better, more relevant ads (for better or worse), and more personalized digital experiences.