NC Trend: Technology and artificial intelligence
A Carrboro company uses artificial intelligence technology to interpret consumer behavior and solve complex problems.
How many beers have you consumed in the last seven days? Depending on your drinking habits, recall skills or state of mind, it’s likely that you’ll forget or maybe lie. Even in focus groups, a participant often answers one way, but their grocery receipts paint a different story, along with a weeklong buildup of beer cans in their trash.
Richard Boyd views this scenario as an opportunity for his Carrboro-based artificial intelligence company, Tanjo, which uses virtual simulations and machine learning to improve market research and help organizations spot redundancies in their internal processes.
Human fallibility is a major consideration in transforming human knowledge to AI and vice versa. While the real “me” might lie about drinking habits, a digital “mini-me” embedded in an interactive simulation might tell the truth.
Boyd has spent 30 years building virtual reality and augmented reality technology for entertainment, military and education applications. He was part of the management team at 3D software developer Virtus, which developed video games for Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Entertainment, Michael Crichton’s Timeline Computer Entertainment and iRock with Ozzy Osbourne. In 2001, he co-founded 3Dsolve with Virtus founder David Smith, and the duo applied their knowledge for gaming to education, health care and defense applications. Examples included helping determine the best way to learn algebra, run a McDonald’s restaurant and improve operating-room procedures. Defense giant Lockheed Martin bought 3Dsolve in 2007.
Boyd first recognized the rapid evolution of AI in a 2009 visit to a Microsoft research lab that was creating a sensor-based motion-tracking program to recognize speech, gestures and movements. “It took more than 224,000 hours of [central processing unit] time to train that system [in 2009],” he says. “Today, we can teach a car to drive with less than 100 hours of video footage.”
In 2013, federal budget cutting pushed Lockheed Martin to focus on its core defense business and jettison commercial efforts. Boyd left to start Tanjo, a company focused on the emerging field of AI and machine learning.
His first product was partly inspired by a Lockheed Martin project that involved digitizing records from the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and other sources and making them accessible to K-12 teachers. Lockheed developed a learning registry to interpret records already tagged by humans, then tag the remaining content and categorize it accordingly. Boyd mulled applying this idea to organizing internal resources and information within colleges, banks, government agencies, insurance providers and beyond.
Tanjo’s Enterprise Brain analyzes an organization’s processes to identify redundant areas that waste time and money. This “hovering AI assistant” scours everything it can and opens doors to previously unrecognized resources, Boyd explains. “We call it the new scientific method: Instead of humans having to analyze problems and bring their own expertise to bear on studying them, you dump all the information into the machine brain and then say, ‘Come up with every hypothesis that you think might be useful.’”
For instance, a professor creating a 3D printing course might learn through Enterprise Brain that a university system already hosts many similar courses. It would direct the instructor to colleagues who’ve taught such material and gather relevant content for the course. A smoking cessation study at an insurance company might use the system to identify a leading expert working on another team within the same organization.
Tanjo’s Enterprise Brain clients include Research Triangle Institute, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C., other insurers and banks, and the 58 institutions in the North Carolina Community College System. Boyd is a board member at Wake Technical Community College, the state’s biggest community college.
The company’s other flagship product is Tanjo Animated Personas, a software-as-a-service program that simulates potential customers’ response to a product or a message. The platform uses anonymized demographic and customer data to depict human responses as they view and interpret materials.
“If you want to understand people, look at what they do with their money and their attention,” Boyd says. “Focus groups and surveys didn’t predict Donald Trump and Brexit, but what did was Google Search data and Amazon purchase data. That’s who people really are.”
Companies pay a flat fee to create a mock customer base and host them in an AI focus group where they can read the news, listen to a podcast or watch YouTube videos featuring the client’s product. Boyd synthesizes data from the U.S. Census Bureau, market researcher Nielsen, public-health surveys and other sources to create a model of the 126 million U.S. households and what behaviors they might share.
From studying the different ways to buy chicken in North Carolina to achieving better wellness for insurance customers, the personas work in many ways, including in Boyd’s personal life. When his father died in 2017, Boyd gathered personal letters and military records to create a digital rendition of him. “It’s oddly comforting to go and see him and hear what he thinks about what’s going on,” Boyd says. “There’s a synthetic version of him that’s still with me.”
Tanjo is based in downtown Carrboro with fewer than 10 team members. It was bootstrapped by the founders until June 2014, when Franklin-based tax-software developer Drake Enterprises invested $2.5 million. Boyd isn’t seeking more capital.
Now, he is pursuing more government customers as agencies partner with private firms during the coronavirus pandemic. Tanjo recently teamed up with several companies to create a readiness score for each of the state’s 100 counties to help make more data-driven health care decisions.
The company is also working with Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Digital Health Institute for Transformation on a Community Health Utility Grid, which interprets data to identify ways to improve health outcomes for underserved areas in North Carolina.
Boyd is passionate about AI but emphasizes that a human-machine balance is paramount to a healthy future. “That’s the central problem of the century,” Boyd says. At Wake Tech, he advises students to avoid certain occupations likely to be decimated by AI in coming years. An example is radiology, or reading X-rays, which he says machines can do better than humans.
“[A business must have] the right balance of human effort and human attention and machine effort and machine attention to optimize the outcome. Whether it’s better health, better education, better governance of a city or better sales for a product, we have to figure out what that balance is.” ■