How The Use Of AI Technology Can Help Us Make More Informed Decisions
I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Davis, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Element Data, a company that is advancing the future of artificial intelligence by developing decision intelligence technology which incorporates human psychology into decision making tools for enterprise and consumer use.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’m a serial entrepreneur and a veteran of several startups. Most of my career has concentrated on the intersection of behavioral psychology and computer science, known as behavioral analytics. Can we use computers to predict what people will do, when they will do it, and why? My work involves classifying behaviors and developing computer models that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect that behavior.
One of the first patents I was awarded in my career was a method to determine the identity of an individual just from the way he or she typed on a keyboard. Today, many companies use it as a security “factor” when people log into a site or service.
If you have ever attempted to log into your bank account for instance, typed in what you knew was the correct password, but were asked to type it again, it was because the cadence signature, or your typing rhythm did not match, and you have me to blame for that!
Fast forward several years to today, and my company, Element Data, is building the world’s first Decision Cloud, which is essentially a huge database of decisions, the options that were considered, the factors and the outcome. We might call it digital wisdom. It will fundamentally change the way people and technology interact.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Shortly after starting the company, we had to decide where we were going to establish our office. We were in a temporary space and growing rapidly, and there was a lot of internal debate about what where we should locate. One day, during one of these heated discussions about where to locate, it suddenly occurred to us: We should use our technology to help us decide!
In less than fifteen minutes, we entered into the system what we had been not so politely debating for days. Within seconds, we had a detailed analysis that took into consideration all points of view. Not only did we have a consensus decision, but I think at that point we all thought to ourselves “Yeah, we really do have a business here!”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re one of the few tech companies that can truly have a profound impact in the decision process. So, a story I like to tell is the one that inspired me to start the company. Some years back, my wife was graduating from medical school and was faced with a huge decision which would have a lasting impact on her career: Where should she apply for residency? Because she had gone to medical school later in life and we had young children, her considerations we different than those of most of her colleagues. She was literally losing sleep over her decision, how it would impact her career and our family.
I dusted off a project I had worked on several years prior that allowed her to input her options, criteria, and importance for each factor. It produced a highly personalized overview of her choices and identified the rational and irrational aspects of her criteria, which she used to make the most informed decision possible based on her desired outcomes.
It was so successful that word spread. By the next day, it was standing room only in our living room. Everybody wanted to feel more confident in the decisions they were making about where to apply for residency after medical school!
Decisions are processes that people undertake or participate in everyday; human decision making is an incredibly complex task, shaped by cognitive bias and other limitations. Decision-making is not logical, or well organized, it’s incredibly messy.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
So right now, we are building the Decision Cloud, which is essentially a graph database of human decision data. We’re working on incorporating the Decision Cloud platform and decision data for use with intelligent agents like Siri, Alexa and Google to enable them to determine factors in decision and choice.
When you use an intelligent assistant today, these tools merely provide you with answers to questions, but they cannot help you make a decision. They can’t do this today because they don’t have a body of decision data to access. Imagine asking an intelligent agent for help in choosing a healthcare plan. With our decision intelligence technology, that agent would know the right questions to ask in order to pick the best plan for you based on the personal criteria that you establish. Using AI as a partner in the decision process will become a reality for enterprises and consumers with this technology we are refining.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I have a few pieces of advice:
· Develop the skill of listening. People make a conscious choice to work with you and adopt your vision, so don’t be dismissive, you can always learn something.
· Be both intellectually curious and humble. You don’t know everything, and you never will.
· You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but make sure you hire them! Find the best and brightest people in their respective disciplines and bring them aboard. You’ll never build anything of importance or worth if you’re easily intimidated, so don’t be; rather, respect the capabilities of your team and take full advantage of each individual’s talents and knowledge!
· Trust but verify. This is very much overused term today, but truer words were never spoken when applied to a technology startup. There are few good surprises in a technology, so question and validate everything you hear and are told.
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?
Unquestionably, my parents helped me along the way — my mother for her tenacity and my stepfather for his work ethic. I’m fortunate that I never had to look very far for my heroes.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am a highly active mentor to several individuals who are pursuing careers in technology. I also have become an advocate for the responsible and ethical use of artificial intelligence, including the inclusion of models that take into account minority and underrepresented population data.
Can you share some lessons that you have learned from your experience as a “Black Man In Tech”?
Well, here are my top three:
1. You’re not the stereotypical “geek” so don’t be surprised if your tech “cred” is challenged. Several times, I have been in meetings where if someone was not familiar with my background and accomplishments, they had me qualify my technical abilities. I distinctly remember one time in which an individual questioned me about a particular algorithm and its proper application. He proceeded to inform me that my use of the algorithm was not what the creator of the algorithm intended. I let him go on for a few more minutes before I suggested he look up who developed the algorithm. Of course, I was the one who developed it! I then assured him that the way it was implemented was exactly what I had intended.
2. Don’t assume you did not get something because you’re black. This is the insidious aspect of prejudice, that if something does not go your way, it may be because of your race. In reality, that type of prejudice is a relative rarity in the world of tech.
I can distinctly remember going into a meeting several years ago to pitch and I just knew I nailed it! There was no way we would not get the deal. I was utterly shocked when we were passed over for an inferior offering. Afterwards, I questioned everything, but mostly myself. I even wondered, if I should have had someone else run the pitch, because of course I thought the decision maker must have been reacting to me personally.
Well, the vendor wound up having to be replaced and I was called in to take over. As I got to know the decision maker and established a rapport with him, one day over lunch, I asked why we had originally been turned down. His response? We had the best tech but were relatively unknown and therefore a risk. I realized that my personal perception of my race as a liability was in my head; it was a manifestation of my mindset and attitude, and it was a destructive one. Like I say to a lot of African-Americans and minorities I speak with, there are going to be some people who will be dismissive, but that does not give you permission to dismiss yourself.
3. Pressure: It can make a diamond or bust a pipe. I think everyone in tech has a story about a deadline or challenge they struggled to overcome. Just remember that those are opportunities to really build a team, to get ideas and people to coalesce, to shine. Don’t let it be the pressure that bursts the pipe; instead combine that pressure and the confinement of the deadline with your people, purpose and ideas and triumph!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
I can’t give you just one, because there are two that I live by:
“Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers.”
“There is no such thing as can’t. Either you don’t know how or you don’t want to.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I would like to sit down with former President Barack H. Obama because it would be fascinating to understand the factors that drove his decision process as President of the United States.