Your AI Entourage

Stephanie Overby

Rand Hindi, Snips CEO and co-founder, wants to change how people interact with digital devices

Ever think your smartphone is vibrating or ringing when it isn’t? It’s such a common phenomenon that researchers gave the problem, which plagues between 70% and 90% of smartphone users, a name: phantom vibration syndrome. Some people find themselves so unhealthily attached to or distracted by their digital devices that they go on technology fasts to help them detach.

Entrepreneur Rand Hindi says the problem isn’t technology but the way we interact with it. Hindi, who was born in Lebanon and grew up in France, started coding at age 10, launched a web development agency at age 15, and earned his PhD in bioinformatics while working as a consultant on algorithmic trading. Today, the 31-year-old runs Snips, a Paris-based startup that is getting attention—and more than US$6 million in funding—for its promise to make technology disappear.

“Every time we’re handed new devices and new services, it increases the complexity we have to deal with,” says Hindi, who received notifications for his Skype interview with Digitalist on his Apple Watch, iPhone, and MacBook simultaneously. “It’s going to get unbearable.” Instead, Hindi pictures a day when devices fade into the background like electricity.

Refine the Problem

Hindi and his co-founders, CTO Maël Primet and chief design officer Michael Fester, launched Snips in 2013 as an AI research lab. They built apps for other companies, such as one for France’s national railway company, which helps suburban commuters find available seats on trains. These micro-assistant apps set the stage for Snips’ first product, an AI assistant to help people navigate their lives—one “so smart and integrated into your daily workflow that you don’t have to care about technology anymore,” says Hindi.

A full-blown AI assistant that manages all of a user’s consumer tech is at least a decade away, according to Hindi. In the meantime, Snips is aiming at smartphones. “Today, we manage the applications and data on our phones manually. We have to know where the information we need is, locate the icon for that app, access that data, and go back to our home screen to then access another app,” says Hindi. “That requires a pretty heavy mental load.”

You need to experiment a lot, see what works, and keep going.

The current version of the Snips app gathers information from a device’s important data streams—contacts, e-mail, calendar, accelerometer, and location data—and uses AI to link that information to other relevant apps. If someone has an upcoming Airbnb reservation, for example, Snips could retrieve that reservation data and use it to request an Uber ride to get there. As the app learns how individuals interact with their device, it could reply to meeting requests or e-mails on their behalf or surface incoming information it knows will be important to each person.

Catch the Wave

Until recently, the popular conception of AI centered on images of job-stealing automatons or of Terminator-esque robots intent on human destruction. “A year ago, everyone was talking about how AI could wipe us out,” Hindi says.

But 2016 seems to be the year of the bot. Every major mobile operating system provider is unveiling plans for AI-powered assistants. “The attitude, at least among early adopters, has shifted,” Hindi adds.

The formidable competition confirms for Hindi that he’s focused on a critical problem. And because AI assistants are a new product category based on an emerging technology, he thinks startups like Snips are just as likely as established companies to master it.

“No one knows how it is supposed to work. You need to experiment a lot, see what works, and keep going. That’s also part of why it’s fun.”

Change the Game

Snips keeps data private by analyzing it on the user’s device

For Snips to work best, “you need to give it access to your whole life,” Hindi says. “But if you centralize data on the lives of millions of people, that’s a perfect target for hackers. The most obvious way to prevent that from happening is not to have the data in the first place.”

Snips takes a “privacy by design” approach to app development. A lot of AI software transfers an individual’s data to servers in the cloud in order to analyze it, while Snips performs its analysis on the user’s device. In addition, users decide which data to feed into Snips’ algorithm. Almost all Snips’ users share their location; more than half allow the app to delve into their e-mail.

Snips’ approach anticipates pending EU regulations that require companies to consider data privacy during product development and that prohibit them from collecting user data unless an individual opts in. In the United States, where there are fewer data use regulations, Hindi says potential business partners either love the approach or hate it, depending on whether they think it’s worth the effort. Software development takes longer when privacy is addressed upfront, but Hindi is banking on consumer demand for privacy increasing as AI assistants become popular. “We believe it’s going to be so important that we’ll more than make up for lost time later on.”

Choose the Right Milieu

Hindi could have chosen any city as Snips’ headquarters. He picked Paris—ranked sixth for startups and scale-ups on the European Digital City Index 2015—for its concentration of high-end talent at one-third the cost of hiring developers in Silicon Valley or New York City. With 40 employees, Snips is the largest AI startup in Europe.

Credit: Getty Images

Another benefit to launching a tech company in France: tax incentives and other government support for tech startups. France once had a lead in the race to the web; beginning in the early 1980s, millions of French households used dedicated Minitel terminals to shop, book transportation, and chat on message boards, but the service never caught on outside the country.

“There’s a feeling in France that we missed the internet revolution; we had something we could have capitalized on then. They’re trying to prevent that from happening again,” says Hindi.

There’s significant collaboration among early stage tech companies as well. “We’re not just competing against each other but against Silicon Valley,” adds Hindi. “There’s a strong feeling of community because we’re fighting for a position in the global economy.” D!

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

Stephanie Overby

About Stephanie Overby

A Boston-based journalist, Stephanie Overby has covered everything from Wall Street to weddings during her career. She is currently focused on the implications of digital transformation.