The Future Is Now: James Kaplan of MeetKai On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene

If something isn’t working, it doesn’t always make sense to fix it. This is especially true for people. If you don’t mesh with someone, don’t try to force it to work. As an entrepreneur, you want to minimize politics and focus on your business.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Kaplan.

James Kaplan is the CEO and Co-Founder of MeetKai, the first AI voice assistant that uses conversation, personalization, and curation to make users’ lives easier.

Kaplan founded MeetKai in 2018 after becoming frustrated with the current AI voice assistants on the market today. Now, he’s joined by his Co-Founder and Chairwoman, Weili Dai, to create one of the fast-growing tech startups.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always loved programming since I was six years old. I started to learn how to code just after learning to read! In particular, I liked making games. One of the most important pieces of a game, especially when you are an adolescent, is artificial intelligence (AI). Wanting to design AI for games morphed into a love for AI in general. Over the years, I realized entrepreneurship is the best way to amplify the work that one person can do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Before co-founding MeetKai, I ran an AI-based hedge fund. At the time, my business partner bought Ethereum, a type of cryptocurrency, when it first came out. But we couldn’t remember the password to our cryptocurrency site! We had to work for a few days to write a cracker for his password based on similar patterns when creating passwords. After a few days of rushed and stressful engineering, we recovered tens of thousands of Ethereum coins.

Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Our core area of focus is in Conversational AI. We want to go beyond using language understanding to get a single search result from a search engine and instead allow computers to truly converse with users. Right now, this conversational capability is being used to help people search and find content (such as recipes, restaurants, movies, and television shows) using conversational language. In the future, we want to bring this same conversational technology to more day-to-day scenarios. In particular, we want to use this technology to enable rich meditation and fitness experiences that are dynamic. By allowing AI to replicate the experience of a personal coach, we will be able to bring that experience to many more people than can’t afford a human doing so.

How do you think this might change the world?

We see this as the first step to reach the AI that people envisioned would be helping them in their day-to-day lives. The first Iron Man movie featured Jarvis as a true conversational assistant, but that was 13 years ago. While it may have seemed that progress was being made towards that goal since then, I think everyone can agree that the current state is far from it. We are aiming to accomplish this using fundamentally new approaches to the problem.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I think there are two fundamental problems and drawbacks. The first is user privacy. In trying to create a conversational assistant that’s with a user in their day-to-day life, we need to make sure that this assistant is truly personal. We want this technology to be developed in a way that you can see your assistant as your best friend, not a commercial entity. The second class of problems is the question of ethics and bias. If you trust your assistant to provide you personalized content, we have to ensure that the assistant is not introducing bias into your life or otherwise promoting it. Our goal here is not to eliminate all viewpoints from the assistant. We think it would make a lot of sense for the assistant to challenge you at different points — encouraging you to break out of your comfort zone — but we have to be cautious. All decisions we make as a company, both in business and R&D, have to keep these fundamental drawbacks in mind.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

We founded the company in late 2018 based on an observation: the current technology for voice assistants was trying to add voice to a text-based understanding of the world. Put simply, voice assistants turned what you said into text and just put that text into Google. As a result, the technology was good at basic queries like asking for a movie by title but started to fail and degrade if you expected to have a conversation with it. Our tipping point was one realization. Instead of building a voice assistant on top of existing search engines, we started from scratch and built a search engine based on the premise that it will be used for voice.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We spent 2019 in a pure R&D cycle, and we spent 2020 in a QA cycle with partners with a large global footprint to validate the technology. Our goal for the next 12 months is to take what we developed and build it into consumer products. We are still at the early stages of bringing all of the capabilities to users, but one of our biggest challenges to widespread adoption is education. We need to reeducate users so they interact with our AI using actual conversational language to search, not just keywords. This has been more difficult than we thought. People have a fixed set of expectations for what types of searches a search engine can handle. As a simple example, people would search Google for “white solid color shirt” if they wanted to find a shirt without stripes. With our technology, we can enable users to say, “Hey Kai, can you find me a white shirt without stripes?” It’s a very different way of looking at things.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

We just started our marketing process in May. We are working with a few content partners in different regions to put together marketing campaigns this coming summer to target early adopters. These are still at the early stages of being discussed publicly, but we hope to have more to share soon.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My Co-Founder, Weili Dai, is the embodiment of a mentor. I can’t say enough positive things about her. The biggest thing that she’s taught me is to think about how the other side can win. You want to make that a win-win rather than the opposite. This is what helped us get our first partner when we were still in the R&D. I went into the meeting with a clear pitch of why they needed us and why we had an interest in helping them. That win-win is key to avoiding long-winded dances that waste both sides’ time. If there is no win-win, make it obvious early, and if there is, make it clear early on.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think that we’re only starting here, but one of our big hopes is to bring cutting-edge AI to areas of the world that are traditionally last in line to receive new technology. We have selected Mexico and Indonesia as our “test beds for innovation.” We want to bring more cutting-edge and disruptive technology there even sooner than to the United States. We have formed a partnership with the premier digital health company in Indonesia and are working towards using our AI to enable much lower-cost health experiences for Indonesians in 2022. We’re hoping to make similar partnerships with local players in other underserved markets to enable them with this next-gen AI.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Never write an email that is longer than one screen on a cell phone. I can’t count the number of times I have sat with high-profile individuals and never seen them scroll to the end of an email before replying (or ignoring it).

Don’t undersell your potential. People are tempted to say something like, “If we just capture 1% of the market, we will be huge.” Just say, “This is the market, these are the players, and we are going to eat their lunch.”

If something isn’t working, it doesn’t always make sense to fix it. This is especially true for people. If you don’t mesh with someone, don’t try to force it to work. As an entrepreneur, you want to minimize politics and focus on your business.

Trust your gut, seriously. If something feels off to you at first glance, don’t convince yourself that it’s fine. Listen to yourself and trust your common sense.

Always know who is signing the paper on the other side and who you will be talking to if things go south. Whenever you deal with massive entities, make sure you understand who the decision-maker is, and more importantly, who the person is that you will go to if something goes wrong. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to build a relationship with that person before it’s too late.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I know this may sound cliche, but never be afraid of being the underdog. Many movements fail to start because people are afraid of being the “David.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Overpromise, overdeliver even if it is hard.” This was shared with me by a startup founder doing extremely ambitious work in hardware. It resonated with me. Sometimes, you have to ignore the advice to underpromise, overdeliver. I think about this very frequently ahead of weeks that look intractable. You have to buckle down, bite the bullet, and make the impossible possible.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Few major advancements in AI have come from established players. Most of the groundbreaking work comes from new entries. Google, for example, leapfrogged Yahoo. When it comes to conversational AI, this will be the case too. By approaching the problem in a new way and creating everything from scratch, it’s possible to leapfrog over the tech giants and build a next-gen voice assistant with conversational AI technology.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am on Twitter as @jekirl and you can find us on Instagram as @meetkaihub

The Future Is Now: James Kaplan of MeetKai On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Recommended Posts