Q&A: Nikhil Jain, CEO and Co-founder, ObEN
RTIH: Tell us about ObEN
NJ: ObEN is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) company in Pasadena, California, building Personal AI (PAI), intelligent 3D avatars that look, sound, sing and behave like the individual user. Because we see our PAI as the digital double of the user, we have adopted the Project PAI blockchain to secure and authenticate our PAI, allowing ObEN’s technology users to create, use, and manage their own one on a secure, decentralised platform.
On the PAI blockchain, users are able to engage in a variety of experiences, and developers can also create a variety of different experiences that enable never before possible social and virtual interactions. As the world’s first decentralised platform for Personal AI, the Project PAI blockchain is creating a ecosystem where everyone can use their PAI, and every interaction can help to improve both the user experience and the overall capabilities of PAI’s on the network.
RTIH: What was the inspiration behind setting the company up?
NJ: My co-founder Adam Zheng and I have always had careers that require a lot of travel. When we met a few years ago, one of our early discussions was around how much we wished we could leave a copy of ourselves behind when we went on our business trips, especially since we both had young children at home.
This sparked the idea to combine cutting edge speech, computer vision, and NLP technology and using machine learning to create Personal AI - so now even if I'm traveling my PAI can read bedtime stories to my kids or interact with them, even if I’m thousands of miles away in a meeting.
RTIH: What has been the industry reaction thus far?
NJ: We've had a great amount of interest from partners, investors, the tech community, in the media and various other areas of business. Our investors include Tencent, Softbank, SM Entertainment, K11, and Vive X. In addition to the entertainment value of having a personal copy of yourself that can sing and speak in your voice, we're now working with strategic partners in retail, healthcare, education and entertainment to develop PAI-based experiences.
With K11, we just launched the world’s first PAI concierge at their Shanghai Art Mall - which is a PAI of K11 founder Adrian Cheng that will guide users through their new exhibit and provide information and background, all through a mobile device. That personalised experience can be extended throughout the retail industry - for example, the PAI can be used to provide personalised concierge service to shoppers, providing them info on new stores or merchandise, guiding them through the retail location, etc. In addition, a user’s own PAI can act as their personal shopper as it learns more about their tastes, or brands can leverage celebrity PAI’s to help promote and model their merchandise.
Outside retail, we also have a joint venture with SM Entertainment, Korea’s largest entertainment agency. Together we have created the world’s first celebrity AI agency, AI Stars, and we are working with celebrities worldwide to develop PAI’s that they can leverage to create unique and personalised experiences for fans.
RTIH: What has been your biggest challenge/setback?
NJ: Unlike most companies that only work on one portion of the personal avatar technology, ObEN’s full stack AI combines technology that develops the look, voice and brain. However, making these complex elements work together takes some work to get right, which is why the majority of ObEN’s team is made up of researchers from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, including Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Cal Tech.
In addition, because we are using blockchain to secure and authenticate our PAI, we have had to work on how to make this complicated new technology accessible to the average user, something our product and design teams have worked hard to tackle.
RTIH: What are the biggest challenges facing the omnichannel retail sector right now?
NJ: Changing consumer habits. Consumers these days are incredibly tech savvy, and demand better and better experiences. Touchpoints have moved away from in-store to digital, but customers still crave a level of personalisation and connection in these digital interactions. That’s why you see so many retail apps that try to provide personalised suggestions or easy access to customer service through chat. However, all of these elements are not only very resource intensive, they also still lack the human element, which is something ObEN hopes to provide with our technology.
RTIH: What's the best question about your company or the market asked of you recently by a.) an investor and b.) a customer?
NJ: a) Why use PAI when people have smart assistants already? Two-fold; first, most smart assistants are not customisable, with the same voice and expressions. Imagine instead of having your gps guide you in the generic voice, you can hear the voice of your children, or even favourite celebrity instead.
Second, most smart assistants are broad domain AI, meaning they know a lot about general information but very little about you. So when you ask your phone for restaurants in LA, it will probably give you a list of the top rated ones or the ones closest to you. But what if you only like certain foods, or you don’t like spicy dishes? Our AI is designed to be narrow domain, which means it learns as much about you as you are willing to share with it, so that all of the actions it takes are personalised to you. So when you ask about restaurants, it will suggest those that it knows you would like.
b) Can my PAI go to work for me? It’s a question we get a lot when we talk about using AI to get the PAI to behave like you, and the reality is no, it cannot replace you or go to work for you, at least not in the foreseeable future. What it can do is learn your behaviour and tastes, so that it can complete little tasks for you, like helping you purchase a new outfit, managing your schedule, making travel plans for you based on what it knows about your preferences, etc. Basically, helping you complete the million little daily tasks that eat up so much time, and leaving you more time to do important things.
RTIH: What can we expect to see from ObEN over the next 12 months?
NJ: We are getting ready to launch our first consumer application on the PAI blockchain, which is very exciting for us. The initial experience will allow users to create, authenticate and customise their PAI and then they can engage in an AR experience where they can select a song and read a lyric, and our technology will convert that into the user’s singing voice. They can then create AR videos of their PAI singing and dancing, and share it with friends. In addition, we have several different verticals where we are working with strategic partners to develop integrations of PAI technology that will showcase more use cases for this technology.