A Man and His Bots
Roaring into the public spotlight after his chatbot saved people in London millions of dollars in parking tickets, Stanford rising sophomore Josh Browder continues to pursue his passions in consumer and human rights, combining the technology and connections of Silicon Valley with a worldview that looks well beyond it.
With his curly brown hair, thick spectacles, love for country music, and tendency to apologize for ranting when giving minimalist responses, Josh Browder does not talk for the sake of talking. During his pitch to the student entrepreneur program Summer@Highland which he is now a part of, he spoke for two of the allotted five minutes he was given in a half tucked collared shirt, jeans, and dress shoes. There was no showmanship, no appraisal of market size, and when answering questions, each response was a sentence long only if it could not be answered with a yes or no. He was immediately accepted.
In contrast to many of the incredibly talented computer science students that are his peers, Josh does not do things for the money, for the peer acceptance, or as a piece to some overarching goal-orientated ambition. He does things because he wants to, and if he wants to, you can be sure as hell that he will be doing it, regardless of what his parents, society, or the government thinks.
Born and raised in London and an immigrant to the concentric bubble known as Silicon Valley, Josh is well aware of the disconnect between the Valley and the rest of the world. The mix of 78-degree weather, Moore’s Law, mobile penetration, and Uber drivers pitching you their biotech startup has created a tunnel-visioned utopia. As Carnegie Mellon scrambles to replenish the ranks of its AI academia, in a time where AI researchers are treated as celebrities and sucked into corporations for branding purposes (and handsomely rewarded), Silicon Valley’s software may not yet be eating the world, but it sure is biting off as much as it can chew.
In a matter-of-fact British accent, Josh gave his view of the future: “I absolutely think AI will destroy jobs. Truck driving employs 3.5 million people in America and when there are driverless trucks how are the jobs going to be replaced. There will be the unemployed masses, lacking the skills to have a proper job, and then a small minority of founders and venture capitalists with hundreds of billions of dollars in cumulative wealth. And if there’s any sort of democracy left in 30 or 40 years, the masses will push for a basic income.”
So much of Silicon Valley is about solving the problems of Silicon Valley that the side-impacts of its hyper growth technologies are rarely considered. This is why SF startups seem to cater solely to the needs of 20-somethings looking to replace their mother’s tender loving care with smartphone apps, and why newly-unemployed masses in London and the US push towards more radical agendas.
Josh, however, is different. When he was 13, Josh began an obsession with iPhone development, teaching himself the basics of iOS development through YouTube tutorials. He was a fan of the UK sandwich chain Pret A Manger, so he coded up a location finder app for the store. When there were only around 50,000 apps on the App Store, his app shot to the top ten in the Food and Drink category.
Josh used the chain’s graphics in blatant copyright violation, so Pret A Manger demanded he take it down. Josh refused, and rather than get into a PR battle with a 13-year-old, Pret a Manger bought the app from him. Josh, smiling, said of the incident, “That was a lot of money for a 13-year-old — I got the biggest MacBook I could get.”
The teenage wizard app developer trope is all too common, but from there Josh transitioned to looking at the intersection of human rights and technology. He was inspired in part by his father, Bill Browder, a wizard hedge fund manager who made a name for himself exposing corrupt companies in Russia before transitioning to human rights advocacy (Bill Browder’s full story is quite incredible, detailed in his book Red Noticewhich I highly recommend.)
At 15, Josh cold emailed the top 20 human rights organizations offering his help free of charge. Seven took him up on the offer, including Freedom House, one of the oldest human rights organizations in the US. Each had a specific project, and Josh did everything from overcoming Chinese censorship in publishing human rights reports to building an app that trained lawyers in African countries. By 16, Josh was a force to be reckoned with, a thoughtful, stubborn, highly talented developer with a worldview radically more mature than his peers.
So when he received over a dozen parking tickets his mother refused to pay for, Josh saw it as an overstepping of the local government’s boundaries, picking on citizens to generate money. So began DoNotPay, Josh’s most high-profile accomplishment.
A chatbot constructed well before the chatbot craze over the past couple months, DoNotPay guides its users through simple questions about the nature of their ticket before constructing and sending an appeal, free of charge. The site has appealed over 150,000 tickets and saved its users a cumulative $4.2 million (USD) at a 43% conversion rate.
The project took shape in part due to Josh’s obsession with chatbots, which began when he was teaching himself BASIC and built a bot in the language. Unlike the recent CNN and Facebook bots, often built using chatbot creation software and managed by social media teams, DoNotPay is far more complex, integrating machine learning that Josh taught himself from YouTube tutorials.
At first, Josh attempted to have the bot recognize any number of ways of saying the same statement, plugging in thousands of potential queries. After recognizing how inefficient this was, however, Josh looked into Bayesian classification at the recommendation of his paternal grandparents, who are mathematicians at Princeton. He created a simple Bayesian classification algorithm, and the bot could now recognize responses with increasing accuracy.
From there, DoNotPay follows a decision tree, with each detail from the user treated as a variable. These variables are then put into an appeal, which sometimes includes relevant evidence like Google Street View images. Though based in London, Josh is testing a prototype version in New York as well.
Every government agency in the UK remotely tied to parking tickets has registered for the site with their gov.uk emails. And with the site’s rise in popularity has come constant media attention, with every publication from BBC to the Daily Mail spinning some version of Josh’s narrative. During his freshman year at Stanford, Josh would juggle the constant demands of the US and UK press. And with every month came a new angle from a different publication — for some he was the angsty teenager looking to end parking tickets forever, for others he was a case study in the rise of robot lawyers.
Investors took notice as well, like venture capitalist and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who Josh met with at Bucks in Woodside. As of yet, however, Josh is not interested in significant funding. “I think there’s lots of pressure to drop out and speed things up,” he said. “I asked Reid what I should do and he said if you want to do this for the next ten years you should drop out, otherwise don’t. And parking tickets are not that glamorous of an industry. If it’s like some massive legal company maybe, but at the moment it’s just parking tickets so as much traction as it’s gotten, I don’t think I want to drop out.”
In parallel to DoNotPay, Josh has been working on additional projects in the consumer and human rights space. One project is a flight delay compensation tool that lets airline passengers earn refunds if their flights are delayed. Another is a service that lets HIV positive patients have proof of their disclosure to sexual partners.
“I think there’s so much discrimination against HIV patients in the legal system,” Josh said. “When you’re an HIV patient, you have to disclose to your sexual partners or it can be as serious as murder. The problem is disclosure is a he-said she-said kind of thing. And in those cases when they go to court, the judges are, in my opinion, slightly biased against HIV patients because people have all sorts of prejudices against those with HIV.”
Josh took this nuanced opinion and combined it with the blockchain, the public ledger where all bitcoin transactions are recorded. The website asks the user for the number of a sexual partner, sending that partner a text. The partner then clicks a button acknowledging their awareness, and the record of the text is added to the blockchain. The scope of the project is incredibly narrow and specific for the amount of time Josh spent learning a new technology, but Josh was passionate in his description: “I think that if that could save just like ten people prison time it would be worth it.”
Josh’s main project this summer as part of Summer@Highland will be a chatbot to help Syrian refugees from getting deported. “About 75 percent of asylum cases are approved,” he said. “The problem is that something like 10,000 people get deported for missing the deadline, not filing a claim at all, absconding from their hearing, etc.. The reason they do that I think is lack of knowledge. The solution, and maybe it’s far fetched, is a chatbot that speaks to them in their language. Because they’re all eligible, they come from Syria, there’s a war going on there.”
With the pressures of rigorous academia, the similarities between peers, the opportunity to make $30,000 with one internship, and the at times suffocating presence of venture money, most Stanford students, and especially technical ones, forget about the world outside of the Valley. Josh has yet to, and the world has smiled back.
Thanks to Li Jiang, Alex Barreira, and Fiona Kelliher for the edits. Check out DoNotPay.co.uk for more information.