[Eng] Hashed People: Blockchain and AI Technology by Co-founders of OBEN, Nikhil and Adam

Hashed Post had a depth interview with OBEN's co-founders, Nikhi Jain and Adam Zheng while they were in Korea. We talked about how they want to use AI technology and blockchain together, and their visions of Project PAI in the future. Nikhil and Adam answered all below questions for Hashed Post.

Can you briefly introduce yourself and what you did before you started ObEN?

Hello, my name is Nikhil Jain, and I am the CEO of ObEN. I co-founded the company with Adam Zheng in 2014. I grew up in India and majored in engineering there. I then came to the US where I received my MBA from USC (University of Southern California). I spent 5 years working at Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest healthcare companies in the US. At Kaiser, I was working on how to connect patients and doctors through technology to improve the quality of care. I also worked on ‘Electronic Medical Records’ and the architecture of the records system. During my time at Kaiser, I learned about some of the issues in healthcare technology. After that, I founded and built a few startups, one of which did very well. 

Adam Zheng (left) & Nikhil Jain (right), Co-founders of ObEN

Adam Zheng, our COO and co-founder, grew up in China and graduated from Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has a Ph.D in Transportation Planning from U.C Davis and a Ph.D in Financial Engineering from U.C Berkeley. After graduation, he went back to China and co-founded the country’s largest dating company, called Bai-He, which currently has nearly 300 million registered users. After that, Adam worked as a venture partner in Silicon Valley, managing investments in Beijing, and was also making angel investments. The two of us met in 2013 through an introduction by our first investor, Idealab.

How did you start OBEN?

When Adam and I met a few years ago we were both serial entrepreneurs exploring a variety of ideas. We both have young kids at home and whenever we traveled on business, we would miss our kids and our kids would miss us as well. We thought, what if we could leave behind a digital copy of us which looked like us and talked like us when we were away from home, so our kids and wives would be happier. We knew the technology had to be easy to use, so that even my 6 years old daughter could use it. This was one of the biggest inspirations for ObEN. Our technology is so easy to use -- all you need is one selfie and you can create your Personal AI (PAI). Your PAI is an avatar, your digital copy. You can speak some lines and your PAI will start speaking in your voice. You can also train your PAI’s personality as well. 

Nikhil (left) and his Personal AI (right) created with ObEN’s AI technology (youtube)

We started looking at blockchain as a way to authenticate everyone’s PAI. We also wanted to find a solution to lower the cost of AI. Currently AI exists on big servers available only to large companies. What blockchain enables, and why it made a lot of sense for us, is a lower cost of AI, democratization of computing power, and mass participation.That is why we adopted the Project PAI blockchain and put our AI technology on it. 

When we started ObEN, one of our initial applications using AI helped people better connect with each other. Celebrities can also create their AI and use it to engage with consumers so that they can have more personalized interactions with their fans. We started making all kinds of AI applications including ones that not only handled personalized speech, but also singing. Our computer vision technology can convert a 2D image, like a selfie, into a 3D avatar. We also use the voice to drive the animation of the avatar’s face. We are the first company in the world to create full-stack Personal AI technologies for the individual. It’s what attracted major investors like Tencent, Softbank and the chairman of China Media Capital, who have all invested in ObEN. In June of 2016, when we were near completion of our prototype, we realized that for most applications, it was critical that users knew that the PAI they were engaging with was authentic. For example, with celebrities, fans wanted to ensure they were talking to a verified version of the celebrity’s PAI, not someone posing to be the celebrity. In a dating application, if I want to date a girl and interact with her PAI I want to make sure that the PAI truly belongs to that girl. AI must be somehow tied to the owner so that people can trust in it. With trust, they can share personal data with the PAI and the AI becomes smarter. Blockchain technology enables this level of authentication and security. 

We see blockchain as the next internet. Just like in the early days of the internet over 30 years ago, lots of data exists on the blockchain today, but there isn’t a good way to utilize it. We want to provide machine learning and AI for blockchain developers and also consumers so that whenever they have lots of data they can call the machine learning function to learn and understand that data. This is very crucial for real applications. In the future, we will enable machine learning functions to allow users to upload more data.

Do you think people will love the PAI of celebrities?

Celebrities have to make content, but they have very limited time to do so. The purpose of this technology is to humanize the AI because what we have done is that as you have seen in my demo, it completely looks like me and talks in my voice. It is quite human. So for fans, even though they know it is AI, their experience is going to feel familiar and authentic. We expect audiences to be able to have interactions that they may not be able to experience with celebrities in the real world. If I want to interact with Taylor Swift, I would probably never have a chance to do that in real life, but by interacting with her PAI, I can become her friend. It is more about interaction and personalization. This is not just for celebrities, but also for influencers as well. They can create their PAI and use it to engage with their followers. So it is a tool for everyone.

If it is fully decentralized, where will all the machine learning features be processed?

So at this moment, AI or machine learning normally needs centralized data processing. That is the most efficient way to do it. There are a lot of university professors including ObEN advisors working on a decentralized approach. For now all the machine learning on a decentralized server works on the nodes that we control. Our plan is to start with centralized nodes and eventually become distributed. So it will be a hybrid system. In the future, the ultimate goal is to allow any person to connect to the cloud and provide computing power for distributed and decentralized AI computation as well. 

What do you think about the possibilities of copying the digital assets for my own use, since Project PAI is an open source protocol? 

What the PAI Blockchain enables is both the machine learning function and also data security. If data is contributed by an individual user it is managed and controlled and secured by that user. Also the machine learning function is provided by ObEN and potentially other machine learning suppliers. So if other developers copy the PAI Blockchain to create their own blockchain, they don’t have access to the data or machine learning function. 

I think the scope of the project is quite big. How big is team ObEN and how do they work?

ObEN’s team now has nearly 50 people. Nearly half of our team have advanced degrees and PhDs in different areas of research such as machine learning, deep learning, AI, speech synthesis, computer vision and natural language processing. They are from top institutions like Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, CalTech, USC, UCLA, and MIT. 

ObEN is an early adopter of Project PAI’s blockchain protocol. We have built another 15 person team of blockchain engineers to collaborate with Project PAI and put ObEN’s AI on the PAI blockchain. Because everything is created in-house, AI and blockchain can work together. So for the first time, AI and blockchain researchers are working in the same place and able to collaborate. As you have seen, we have been able to solve some very big problems already and are able to make fun consumer products like enabling our Personal AI to sing in the user’s voice. We are also working on personalized speech, building TTS in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and English. We are one of the only companies in the world that has this unique combination of AI and blockchain scientists and engineers working together to solve many problems. 

Team ObEN in their sunny offices in Los Angeles, CA.

Regarding trust, I think the KYC process is very crucial. Do you have a plan to use other existing KYC solutions or do you think that ObEN can replace existing solutions? 

I think our KYC is slightly different in that we incorporate not only visual identification, but also biometric features. We actually even do voice authentication, a technology that not many products have. We are able to do facial recognition as well and that is a very deep level of KYC. The way we look at it, your PAI is not just your face or voice, but it is also your data and digital ID. For example, we are working with one of Asia’s largest hospital groups, the Lippo Group. They are going to be using the PAI blockchain along with ObEN’s AI technology to create a telehealth network between patients’ and doctors’ PAI. When you deal with medical data, all the data of the patients will be tied to their PAI to ensure security. So all of this data will be associated with your identity as well. It is not just about identity management, but more importantly it is about data management. 

Interviewer Kenny’s Personal AI (PAI), made with a single selfie

Singing of interviewer Kenny's PAI

For example, you just made your first PAI and now you’re PAI can start singing. We are going to launch PAIYO, ObEN’s first application on the PAI blockchain later this month. This app allows you to speak one sentence and have your PAI sing in your voice. You can make a music video and share it on various social channels like Kakao and WeChat. We’re also working with shopping applications so that your PAI can learn from your shopping history and recommend more things that you may like. Therefore, it is beyond ID management. More importantly, all the data is controlled and owned by you.

Why did Project PAI choose to build their own blockchain instead of using an existing blockchain like Ethereum?

Smart contracts is just a part of what Project PAI is building. But there are so many other features such as decentralization of AI and ownership of data that is unique to the PAI blockchain.

In this case, Project PAI wanted to ensure that all the data collected in the PAI exists only on the user’s digital wallet, and that the ownership of the data belongs to the user alone.

Project PAI started looking at different blockchains that are available and realized that Bitcoin’s configuration architecture was key. Bitcoin actually offers a unique and legally tested precedent on how data ownership can be managed very efficiently and that was one of the key driving factors in Project PAI’s decision to build a new blockchain based on Bitcoin architecture.

Many people think POW is not an optimal solution for the decentralization of hashing power. Does Project PAI have any plans for implementing POS or DPOS?

This is one of the problems Project PAI is working to solve. They are actually working on what they call “Proof of Useful Work”. Until now, a lot of computation power is used to create a hash, but that computation power is ultimately wasted. What if it was used to solve a utility problem instead? In ObEN’s case, everything we do is AI-based. We realize that computation power could be utilized to training AI models. That is something Project PAI hopes to enable. The goal of Project PAI is to build a “humanistic information economy” - one where every person in the world is able to participate. If you have an Android or iPhone with wifi and power, you can offer its computation power to train AI on the blockchain and be compensated for your contribution. And since problems can be of different sizes and complexities, everyone gets a chance to participate, not just the large server farms.

When more and more use cases are created scalability can become a problem. What is Project PAI’s plan for this?

If something is to be globally accepted it has to be extremely scalable. Project PAI is aware of the issues of the Bitcoin blockchain, including network approval time, high expenses, and troubles with scalability. But the good thing about Bitcoin is that there are a lot of companies which are working on potential solutions, and ObEN is actually supporting some of those companies. Project PAI is also working to develop its own solutions to improve scalability.

Before we officially introduce celebrities’ AI on the blockchain, ObEN itself will run through several stress test on the PAI blockchain to ensure usability.

Does Project PAI plan to expand the public blockchain for other usage? Is ObEN looking to bring other industries to the PAI Blockchain?

Absolutely, Project PAI’s roadmap is pretty extensive. There are so many use cases and companies that are approaching Project PAI and seeing its utility, just like ObEN did. Things that most excite me are use cases that can improve a user’s life. Telehealth on the blockchain, for example, can allow people who do not have access to care to interact with the PAI of doctors and use AI to find information about their symptoms. ObEN works with SM Entertainment, through our joint Venture AI Stars, to create PAI for celebrities and allow more fans to interact with them on a personal level. We’re also working with education, sports, IP management, and art sectors to explore the many possible applications.

Project PAI is also coming up with tools that developers can use to start making their own decentralized apps on the Project PAI blockchain.

What is Project PAI’s token model?

PAIcoin is the currency for the PAI blockchain. Everyone who joins Project PAI creates their digital profile - however, they cannot fully use their PAI until it is authenticated. And anyone who is a miner or authenticator gets compensated with PAIcoin. Once a PAI is authenticated, it will be registered on the blockchain and then becomes usable in the PAI ecosystem. So this creates an instant economy for the token. Also, Project PAI has its own roadmap for smart contracts. So if you want to interact with a celebrity’s PAI, they may charge PAIcoin for the experience. Let’s say you want to train or build your AI - you may have to pay to do so. So people have ways to both earn and spend PAIcoin on the blockchain, creating a healthy economy.

Can you tell us more about the Blockchain Research Lab, and your partnership with Qtum?

Because ObEN is an AI + blockchain company, and Qtum also operates in the blockchain space, managing lots of dApps data and consumer data, they also need AI machine learning to mine their data. They wanted to build a joint AI lab with us so that when we create AI on the blockchain and other AI technology, Qtum developers could also leverage those developments. That is the initial idea behind of the collaboration, and we are still in the early stages of establishing the joint research lab, which Qtum announced November 2017. We are also currently working on a partnership with Caltech. Our goal is to keep investing in the research and provide a platform for top researchers, Ph.Ds and engineers to come and be part of the team and contribute to innovations in blockchain.

ObEN and Qtum to build blockchain lab (Link)

As I said to Simon earlier, we are very excited for Hashed. What you guys have built out here is such a powerful community. Project PAI has a strong community in China, the community in Japan is growing, and India has also become a very fast growing community for Project PAI. Project PAI and ObEN are very proud to work with Hashed to cross-promote community and invest together in those four different regions and hopefully everyone grow more.

Why is the Korean market important to you?

The Korean market sets the gold standard for what entertainment should be. Kpop is truly a global phenomena. No other country except the US (Hollywood) exports their content on such an international level. I was in LA and I saw a Kpop concert that was completely packed. There are Kpop concerts in Paris, Mexico, and all over the world. This kind of phenomena is really amazing. So we are very honored to have SM Entertainment as a partner and work with them to create more use cases for celebrities and their fans. The second thing is that blockchain adoption is very high in the Korean market. They are very accepting of new technology and are quite advanced in their knowledge. Finally, we have local partners like SoftBank Korea who are very supportive of our efforts.

What do you think of the cryptocurrency market and its outlook in the next few years?

My biggest shock last year was when my mother, who has not bought a single share in the stock market, called me on Thanksgiving day and said “Nikhil, I heard about this thing called Bitcoin from my friend. Should I buy it?” In America there is huge interest around Bitcoin - everyone was buying it, which is why the price went from $900 to $19,600. But the fundamentals were not there. The market is adjusting now and it is around $10,000~$11,000. The way I look at cryptocurrency is that it is important to decouple the fintech side from the fundamental technology of blockchain. The fundamental technology of blockchain itself is so robust, and fintech is just one of the many possible applications. At the same time, I believe that any and every application on the blockchain should have a token associated with it to enable the humanistic information economy. Without a token, the community gets left behind. The community wants to participate, they want to monetize the blockchains they support. So the cryptocurrency market will keep growing. The market will hopefully stabilize so that people like my mother do not feel like they want to buy every cryptocurrency. That would really mess up the market.

Also, there are so many companies that are participating in blockchain without good fundamentals. It is important that consumers and investors look at the fundamentals of the company in which they are investing. They should read the whitepaper, question the theme, look at the technology, and look at everything before they put their money into a particular token. I think the industry will keep growing but there will be more regulations from government entities to help monitor companies in the space and protect consumers, helping the industry mature.

Lastly, is there anything you want to say to Korea investors, blockchain fans or others?

We have been working in the Korean market for almost two and half years now. First, we are very grateful to SM Entertainment and Mr. Soo-man Lee for putting his trust in us. Second, big thanks to Softbank Korea, another one of our early investors and loyal supporters. Thank you to Hashed as well, for helping us spread our vision. We are actually getting more and more interest from Korean community members and we hope to grow our community here with help from Hashed and all our other partners. We promise to keep investing more and more into developing our technology, and also plan to open offices in Seoul for R&D, product design, and development in the future. We are investing a lot in the Korean market and hope the Korean community will continue to support us.


by. #Hashed

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