Josh Feast of Cogito On The Future Of Artificial Intelligence

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
8 min readAug 18, 2022


AI is a powerful technology, and it is important that we use it carefully and with proper safeguards. However, we shouldn’t conflate its obvious power with predictions that AI will soon achieve sentience — i.e. whether the technology will be able to think, perceive and feel as humans do. I am personally skeptical that our current AI techniques will lead directly to AI sentience. I think we need a way to provide AI with a model of the world so it can build common sense before it could get there.

As part of our series about the future of Artificial Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Feast.

Josh Feast is the CEO and Co-Founder of Cogito. He is a serial entrepreneur and thought leader passionate about creating innovative technology that helps people live more productive lives. Josh has more than a decade of experience as a senior executive and holds a Bachelor of Technology from Massey University in New Zealand, and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he was the Platinum-Triangle Fulbright Scholar in Entrepreneurship.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path in AI?

Growing up in New Zealand with parents in nursing and entrepreneurship, I was often inspired by their passion to help others, which became a guiding force in starting Cogito. Spinning out of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab, Dr. Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Dr. Ali Azarbayejani and I believed in a concept leveraging a robust foundation of behavioral science, machine learning and high-performance computing to create a platform that can understand human behavior and provide feedback to help people live happier, healthier lives.

Paired with Pentland’s experiments on tracking and quantifying human interactions through non-linguistic speech features and conversational social signals, we were able to put our unique experience to work. We created a unique combination of behavioral science and machine learning applied to a clinical context to detect major mental illnesses, like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and depression. Through continued study and algorithm refinement of subtle human behaviors seen in clinical conditions, Cogito’s AI models were trained to better understand the ins and outs of that human behavior and detect more than 200 behavioral signals in the human voice, such as pitch or tone. The surprising part of these findings is Cogito’s ability to analyze not just what is said, but how it’s said, enabling unprecedented insight into human emotion, feeling, state and intent. The unparalleled success in detecting and enhancing behavior and underlying themes to help humans be better versions of themselves sparked the original innovation and continued to drive the growth to where Cogito is today — applying the technology to tens of thousands within the underserved, emotionally-strained contact center population.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

Artificial intelligence has experienced misconceptions and hype over the years. Since our founding, we’ve kept humans at the center of our solution. We believe we can create a symbiotic future by focusing on the relationship between humans and technology. I hope that companies exploring new AI use cases consider the win-win-win model that we’ve rooted our efforts in. By introducing the technology, is it a win for the organization? For the employees? For the customers? Having a “yes” next to each supports buy-in, openness and trust in the technology, and I challenge others to consider the same for the most successful future with technology.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

Most recently, our projects have been centered around combining emotion and conversation AI capabilities to advance our real-time coaching and guidance with an emphasis on human-aware data. We hope this focus will transform the way contact centers are managed. Specifically, new conversational cues and dynamic notifications provide enhanced agents guidance in identifying cross-selling and up-selling opportunities or alerting frontline teams when customers are at risk. With 80% of the industry remote or hybrid, another big focus for Cogito is helping our clients achieve high levels of EX by designing guidance that supports their remote or hybrid agents and enables management to support their teams from anywhere.

Another focus for us has been strengthening our integrations with partners in the contact center ecosystem. Our Cogito Connected Ecosystem includes partner integrations with companies like Salesforce, Genesys and Five9. These projects aim to introduce more platform flexibility, enable leading organizations to deliver enhanced customer experience, and provide deeper agent support for their frontline teams.

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

As Cogito reaches our 15-year anniversary, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Cogito’s co-founders. After securing a Fulbright Scholarship in 2005, I had the privilege to study at MIT. One of my courses was a seminar with curated guest lectures by Sandy. Through this course, I learned about his ‘honest signals’ research and thought it had the potential to make a significant impact on mental health disorders. Sandy, Ali, and myself came together to take a theoretical application of research to create a meaningful technology. Thanks to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the three of us made a real difference with Veterans showing early signs of PTSD. I still remember the early days of Cogito with fondness and am proud of what Sandy, Ali and I have accomplished through the years.

What most excites you about the AI industry? Why?

The AI industry has much to be excited about! The industry has yet to exploit human-aware data fully and leverage it to run and lead organizations — I view this as a significant opportunity to look forward to. By leveraging human-aware data, we can more deeply improve employee well-being, communication efforts and productivity. I envision this will be standard across future businesses.

What concerns you about the AI industry? Why?

Misconstruing how AI works and what it is capable of can be of concern — especially when the technology is so heavily discussed in the media like it is today. A good example is emotion recognition versus emotion AI, which are not interchangeable concepts but are easily confused. Emotion recognition is the process of identifying human emotions like sadness, happiness or anger, often associated with facial recognition technology, and is about inferring a hidden “emotion” variable that is internal to humans. On the other hand Emotion AI typically focuses on measuring and providing direct feedback on measurable visible or audible behaviors, such as nonverbal conversational cues, to enhance a human’s interactive capabilities or “emotional intelligence”.

Additionally, AI bias has always been top of mind for me and is an area I believe the industry must be held responsible for mitigating. A few years ago, Cogito conducted gender bias research to identify de-biasing approaches in speech emotion AI technology. More companies should explore research and proactively apply di-biasing techniques to ensure a fairer future.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

AI is a powerful technology, and it is important that we use it carefully and with proper safeguards. However, we shouldn’t conflate its obvious power with predictions that AI will soon achieve sentience — i.e. whether the technology will be able to think, perceive and feel as humans do. I am personally skeptical that our current AI techniques will lead directly to AI sentience. I think we need a way to provide AI with a model of the world so it can build common sense before it could get there.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

We must remain focused on implementing ethical AI, being transparent about the technology and clearly communicating the benefit of the technology. Showcasing how the technology can work in symbiosis with us and effectively support work will be critical as we forge a trusted path forward.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

In the early days of Cogito, we used our technology to help returning Veterans with PTSD detection and treatment. We later leveraged the technology in leading hospitals like Brigham & Women’s and Mass General Hospitals for clinical trials treating bipolar disorder and mental illnesses — and we continue to conduct studies and trials in the healthcare space today. Today we support tens of thousands of front-line service workers interacting with millions of consumers per day. It’s great to be able to leverage our technology to improve the well-being of individuals all over the world.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the AI industry?

There’s undoubtedly a need to diversify the industry, especially when we consider the countless variables where bias can creep in — gender being one of them. Organizations in the industry must proactively recruit and retain employees with diverse backgrounds, demographics and experiences to create fair technology. By doing so, we can help ensure that AI models and AI applications are fundamentally inclusive.

To that end, I am proud to share that my teammate and Cogito Principal Data Scientist, Cristina Gorrostieta Hurtado, was selected in VentureBeat’s Women in AI Awards Shortlist for AI Research. This is a true testament to her impact throughout her nearly nine-year tenure with Cogito and the progress she’s facilitated.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that had relevance to your life?

There is a New Zealand saying, “You can make anything from №8 wire.” №8 wire is used by sheep farmers for fencing and has become shorthand for a can-do, scrappy spirit. The №8 mentality is something I’ve tried to embody growing up and leading Cogito. The mentality may be unconventional for some but speaks to the ability to adapt and be versatile, both key elements to creating an innovative workplace culture and opening employees’ minds to new opportunities. This mentality has fueled the desire to continually break down barriers for new innovations, whether that means rethinking the makeup of human-aware models, eliminating gender bias in machine learning, or delivering in-the-moment behavioral feedback with zero latency. Cogito sees continuous innovation as a must, and creating a strong workplace culture in and out of the office does just that as the team charts new territory to enhance performance at scale with human-aware coaching technology.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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.

Lately I find myself inspired by the neuro-diversity movement, which recognizes that there is more than one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain, or one “right” style of neurocognitive development. As we progress in better appreciating the richness of human experience and potential, we will come up with better and more human-aware ways of organizing our society and supporting individuals.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find Cogito on LinkedIn and Twitter or myself @joshuafeast. Our team also shares content on our blog linked here.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!



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