Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Five N.C. companies and universities leading the way in AI

Before the wheel, people walked. Before the internet, “connect” meant to talk. The human experience is defined by the latest technology. Right now, millions of dollars are being invested in North Carolina for the development of society’s newest tool: Artificial Intelligence. 

For example, computing giant Lenovo has partnered with N.C. State to develop geospatial AI, aiming to optimize agriculture applications. The university has a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study AI’s impact on education.

Cerebras Systems, a Sunnyvale, California-based AI company, is working to develop one of the nation’s largest supercomputers in Asheville. Healthcare, finance and virtually every industry is seeking to integrate AI into their business. feature sJanuary

The global artificial intelligence market is currently valued at $150 billion, according to consulting firm NICE, and is expected to grow at an annual rate of 37% for the rest of the decade, with the revenue forecast for 2030 projected to hit $1.3 trillion. 

Pendo CEO Todd Olson has grown the Raleigh-based software company into an estimated $2.6 billion business since its founding in 2014.

Smarter solutions: Pendo
By collecting every click within a website, Raleigh-based software vendor Pendo can evaluate online consumer behavior, generate comprehensive analytics and offer creative solutions to businesses.

A 2023 survey by Salesforce showed 89% of consumers are more likely to make another purchase after a positive customer service experience. The days of relying on anecdotal evidence to measure customer experience are over because Pendo can provide the numbers with great  specificity.

Pendo was among the first software companies to utilize advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence to help firms understand how their customers interact on their website, CEO Todd Olson says. That has helped the company near the $200 million annual revenue mark, with Olson now envisioning sales topping $1 billion as AI technology evolves. Pendo’s market value has been estimated at $2.6 billion.

Before founding Pendo in 2014, Olson was head of product for Rally Software Development. “It was really hard to understand, are people using these features? Are people getting value out of it when you spend all this money and time building something? Is it actually driving positive outcomes for the business?” Olson says.“I lived with the pain point that Pendo now addresses.”

Pendo processes and comprehends vast data points, providing in-depth analytics for clients. “We collect about 20 billion events per hour, totaling 40 billion across 800 million people. So, it’s a tremendous amount of data capture,” notes Olson.

Pendo’s AI feature acts as a personalized consultant. After combing through data sets and generating a comprehensive summary of consumer behavior, AI can offer creative solutions. “For example, if we see a certain part of the user experience that is inefficient or slow, we can suggest, hey, if you fix this, you can improve the experience by 20 or 30%,” says Olson.

“We’ve had plenty of people who have changed what they’re building based on our data,” adds Olson. He explained how these changes have saved companies time and money while simplifying the product.

Goldman Sachs predicts 300 million jobs will be lost or degraded by artificial intelligence. It’s a scary prospect, but Olson offers a nuanced view. “Will AI beat our best sales development reps? Never. Now will AI beat our worst? Yeah, probably.”

Where AI falls short is where humans excel, creativity. Artificial intelligence can only act based on what it’s been trained on. It can only offer solutions that already exist. “It took someone to say, ‘Hey, I want to be different, right?” says Olson. “I think true innovation, doing something from nothing… putting two things together that no one has before… Yeah, AI can’t do that.”

Olson has emphasized his desire to take the 900-employee company public, but a lousy market for initial offerings has slowed that plan over the past two years. It may re-evaluate an IPO next year, depending on market conditions, he has said.

A healthier population:
Microsoft and Duke
In August, Duke Health and Microsoft signed a five-year partnership aimed at using the tech giant’s Azure AI system to simplify and optimize every facet of the healthcare system. It’s difficult to comprehend AI’s unbounded ability in healthcare, Duke officials say. “These models are able to formulate and create new thoughts,” says Jeffery Ferranti, senior vice president and chief digital officer. “I think this is going to be more disruptive than the internet itself. It’s going to completely change how we practice medicine, how we train medical students, how we do research because suddenly the computer is able to be a copilot in our pocket.”

The partnership’s first objective is to help develop a tech-savvy workforce that can streamline services while benefiting patients While hospitals nationwide are working to improve electronic databases, Azure AI promises to provide a new level of efficiency. 

“It allows us to take advantage of all the electronic data assets that have been pulled together over the last decade,” says Ferranti. Now, hundreds of pages of medical records can be quickly and easily understood by doctors and nurses. Moreover, this technology is aimed at facilitating medical research.

In the next five years, Ferranti predicts a healthier population because of cures being developed at a rapid rate. Medical discoveries that once took 15 to 17 years to get in the hands of doctors can now result in five to seven years because of the power of AI, he says.

Azure AI isn’t a cure all, to be sure. Machine learning models can lie and “just make stuff up,” Ferranti says. “They will even provide references of journal articles and book chapters… and they don’t actually exist.” This is what data scientists call “hallucinations.” 

The partnership between Duke and Microsoft, which has not released any financial details, is emphasizing the importance of creating trustworthy
technology. Though these models have remarkable potential, “AI should not replace humans. AI should augment humans. And if we do that, I think we’ll be in a good place,” says Ferranti.

Robbie Allen and Jared Pelo, founded Durham-based Bionic Health in January 2023. The preventive health clinic uses AI to help doctors catch chronic illnesses early.

Creating a happier fourth quarter: Bionic Health
Heart disease killed 695,547 Americans this year, mostly as an unforeseen illness. Moreover, chronic illnesses are responsible for 70% of U.S. deaths, and a majority are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jared Pelo and Robbie Allen founded Durham-based Bionic Health, an AI-based preventive health care clinic, in January 2023. Though heart disease and cancers are complex, seeing a doctor doesn’t have to be. “Life expectancy has been declining in the last few years, but we have the power to reverse that,” says Allen.

“I know from studies people’s happiness peaks at about age 65 and it goes down after that because of poor health,” says Pelo, announcing the beta launch of Bionic Health in October. 

Bionic Health raised more than $3 million in its first three months. “We wanted to
automate what a doctor does,” says Allen. He explained how their company was founded around the same time OpenAI’s GBT-4 came to market. “We are based on the latest and greatest technology.”

Before starting Bionic Health, Pelo created an AI “copilot” for doctors called Dragon Ambient eXperience (DAX). This AI model automates clinical documentation, “so the doctor can actually pay attention to the patient in front of them,” says Pelo. The technology was acquired by Microsoft. 

“When you sign up, we give you an order to go get blood work done at a local Labcorp…
we may collect blood pressure, glucose levels, and eventually we are going to factor in wearable data,” says Allen. AI then summarizes these medical metrics. Finally, a clinical team of doctors and health coaches create personalized treatment plans, and ultimately, catch chronic illnesses early. 

Bionic Health is among the few healthcare companies to implement transparent pricing. “I look at how healthcare is done and I often ask ‘Why?’” says Allen. He views clear pricing as integral in instilling trust. “We want you to know exactly why and where the money is going.” Bionic Health operates outside of the traditional health care system, declining to participate in insurance plans.

“ I’m not trying to live until I’m 150, but in my last 10 to 20 years, I want to be able
to do what I want,” says Allen, “I’m hoping as more people adopt this, they could be healthier for longer.” 

Britney Pope, area vice president in nCino’s Global Strategic Solutions group.

Future of finance: nCino
The financial sector has seen a huge push to go digital in past five years. The number of bank branches in the U.S. has declined by 20% since 2009, with the physical locations largely supplanted by an outpouring of new Internet-based services that have made banking more accessible for many customers.

Now, bankers increasingly view AI as more than just automation of clerical tasks,
but more importantly as a tool to elevate the financial sector. In the 2008 recession, many banks collapsed because of a reliance on faulty credit ratings and a conviction that housing values never declined.  Would artificial intelligence have caught those problems and prevented failures?

AI advocates contend that traditional lending is constrained by human capacity, personal bias and slow reactions. Opening the door to machine learning models can lead to faster, and better loans. 

A survey from The Economist showed that 77% of bankers believe the ability to utilize AI will be the difference between success and failure.

A homegrown leader in the field is nCino, a cloud-based banking software based in Wilmington, that contends it has a head start capitalizing on AI. nCino provides banks with an easy-to-use ecosystem of information, offering access to core systems, credit reporting agencies, and other third-party applications. “Our system facilitates the gathering of deposits, origination of any loan products, onboarding of customers, and portfolio management across all lines,” says Britney Pope, area vice president in nCino’s Global Strategic Solutions group.

AI does more than automate administrative tasks, she says.“It’s about putting intelligence into each step of those processes. Consider AI acting on a credit decision. Since we now have all that data from all those lines of business on a single platform, we can then embed the intelligence leveraging that data and generative AI to gather insights about our customers and how they may potentially behave.” 

Historically, credit risk analysis utilizes credit scores and statistical regression models. New machine learning models can learn from large data sets to identify patterns and potential problems that may be overlooked by human or statistical methods. Emerging technology can also help banks flag fraudulent activity and money laundering.

“By automating and accelerating credit decisions, banks can offer access to credit in otherwise underserved communities and demographics,” says Pope. Some academics question that view, contending that biases will be extended through the use of artificial intelligence. That challenge will require human oversight, to be sure.

nCino’s technology has proven a winner in the marketplace, though the company hasn’t thrived for investors. Revenue has soared from $138 million in 2020 to an expected $445 million in the 2024 fiscal year ending Jan. 31. But shares trade for about $30 as of late November, little changed from the $31 IPO price in July 2020 and well below peak levels in 2020-21. 

Many people think AI is going to save the world, and a lot of people think it’s going to end it. In an AI study published in April, Goldman Sachs surveyed more than 900 different occupations and concluded: “Our economists estimate that roughly two-thirds of U.S. occupations are exposed to some degree of automation by AI.” 

These exposed occupations may see 25-50% of their jobs become automated. This technology has potential that’s difficult to comprehend. Its ability to work faster – and smarter – is scary.

Still, industry insiders seem optimistic. People will pivot. The internet didn’t make libraries obsolete, it just changed how humans used the space. The hope is that people will, once again,  adapt, create and thrive.

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