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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Businesses Are Busily Adopting AI

The various ways that companies are  applying artificial intelligence is expanding across industries, including at businesses in the San Fernando Valley. Startups are putting the technology to use in sectors such as communications, manufacturing and health care in novel ways, and are seeing their operations grow rapidly. 

For example, Woodland Hills-based Lex Inc. is establishing new partnerships with universities for its AI-enabled word processor platform, Burbank-based mPulse Mobile Inc. is capitalizing on acquisitions to bolster its patient-engagement platform for health care providers and Sherman Oaks-based nFlux AI is leveraging computer vision to support factory work and manufacturing.

All of these companies are looking to situate their technology as a leader in their field and to find new ways to support human innovation. Some of the company leaders – such as Glendale-based Expper Technologies Inc. and nFlux AI – say that their mission is to supplement human workers’ abilities and increase their efficiency, rather than to replace them.

Expper says that its AI can fill in gaps in the health care system to support providers and improve patient care. Its product is an AI-enabled emotional-support robot called “Robin the Robot,” which works in pediatric units and elderly care facilities. Robin can be programmed to have the affect and communication style of a young child and is designed to interact with humans, help explain procedures and diagnoses, play games and tell stories and act as a supportive companion.

Robin the Robot

Expper chief executive and co-founder Karén Khachikyan notes Robin’s cost-efficiency: the product is available on a subscription basis, and Khachikyan says that it’s much less expensive than hiring additional staff members to provide emotional support to patients.

“The financial impact and positive impact of Robin is very, very big, because (facilities) see an increase in patient satisfaction as well (as a decrease in) staff burnout,” Khachikyan says. “Residents are often lonely, and they need extra care. Robin is a creature that is there to be their friend, to give them attention, to listen to them and make them feel good during difficult times.”

He adds that medical facilities often experience significant staff shortages and that Robin can help fill potential gaps in patient care.

“If technology can be used to provide real care, I think that’s the best thing that humanity can do,” Khachikyan says. “We’re living in historical times (with) how AI transformed technology … if it’s possible to make it affect our level of care or kindness, that would be amazing.”

Seyed Sajjadi, nFlux chief executive and founder, says his company’s goal is also to “amplify” human workers, rather than replace them. nFlux’s technology provides two computer vision-enabled products to employers. The first, called, nFlux Guide, can train workers to assemble a product. After that, nFlux Guide observes and analyzes assembly work to identify mistakes or errors as they happen, suggest fixes and prevent faulty or incorrectly made products from making it off the floor. The company’s platform is primarily used by manufacturers of medical devices, electronics and automotive parts.

The company’s second product, called nFlux Acuity, is an analytics tool that provides engineers with insights on their product or assembly line’s productivity. The data gathered can help those engineers look at ways to improve workers’ efficiency, address bottlenecks, identify common mistake or errors and see historical data on assembly progress.

“We’ve found a very good opportunity in manufacturing where, instead of replacing humans, we get to amplify them, and help the operators on the factory floor do their jobs a lot better,” Sajjadi says.

Some industries Trust AI less 

In some sectors, companies working with AI have had to work to show customers that the technology can be trusted. At mPulse, chief product and technology officer Sanjeev Sawai says his company has had to move slowly with its customer-facing AI. The platform develops AI-enabled digital-engagement tools to help health care and health insurance providers improve patient outcomes and reduce patient costs. Users can receive reminders to schedule appointments, adhere to medication regimens and learn about treatmens.

Sawai says one of mPulse’s challenges has been showing health care providers and professionals that that the results of its outcome-related programs are accurately constructed and contain no bias. He highlights that probabilistic models can often contain “distorted information” and that mPulse has had to work to show customers that its product is reliable. The second challenge involves health care providers’ “extreme caution” around using any patient-facing technology that could have unknown, negative impacts on health outcomes. 

“We have to walk slowly,” Sawai says. “(Providers) are also very sensitive about consumers’ privacy and security … I think we can propose a lot of things to do with AI, but health care is a fairly risk-averse and conservative industry. So, it takes some time (to show) that the AI is doing good things.”

Despite this challenge, mPulse has reached more than 100 million consumers. The company reported 106% year-over-year revenue growth in the fourth quarter, which it attributed to its acquisitions of health analytics platform Decision Point and health management and engagement platform Health Trio.

Hesitation or distrust of AI is not equal across all industries, though: in the communications sector, Lex chief executive and founder Nathan Baschez says that more universities are open to the use of AI. Lex’s AI-powered word processing and copy-editing platform is designed to serve as a high-powered editor that can help users brainstorm ideas, receive critiques, improve writing skills and generate new text. The company recently announced partnerships with the communications department of Tennessee-based Austin Peay State University, which is using Lex to edit university press releases, and with Brandeis University. Brandeis is using Lex in student writing seminars and is looking at the platform’s effects on students’ writing.

“Most universities take the stance that (AI) is a tool that people are going to use, and there’s a good way and a bad way to use it,” Baschez says. “Teaching students how to use it responsibly is key.”

Resources are needed for training

While AI can effectively create content, sort through information and more, the machine learning algorithms need to be trained with large amounts of data.

While text-generation AI has open-source data available, other AI companies may face more of a challenge. Chatsworth-based Machina Labs uses a combination of AI and robotics for machinery production, which allows factories to scale operations around changing product designs or assembly techniques quickly and easily.

When the company was first working to bring such technology to manufacturing, Chief Executive Edward Mehr says it faced the initial obstacle of finding manufacturing data it could use to train its AI. Machina ended up building its own datasets. The company set its system up to capture data and then trained its own AI on that consistently growing dataset.

“It was slightly harder than some of the SaaS companies out there because our data is not easily available,” Mehr says. “We had to figure out a way to build mechanical systems and physical systems that generate data, and those system had to be helpful (to customers) right off the bat, even without data.”

Companies working with AI in the Valley have access to a number of resources, including the Glendale-based Hero House accelerator, which is run by SmartGateVC and provides investment, guidance and networking opportunities to early-stage AI companies. At Burbank-based Disney Accelerator, which focuses on startups working with technology and media, four of this year’s five participants have an emphasis on AI application. 

Tech giants such as Glendale-based home services software provider ServiceTitan and Burbank-based media technology company Blu Digital Group have implemented notable ventures into AI in the last year in efforts to further serve customers and advance company growth. 

“I feel like we are finally entering this phase of AI now where … a huge progress had been made, seemingly overnight,” Baschez says. “We’ve been living in that world for a little over a year, and it’s starting to work its way into products, new companies are being created, like Lex, and then it’s working its way into existing companies’ product offerings. It’s fascinating to see.”

James Brock
James Brock
James Brock has worked in newsrooms around the world, including in New York, Paris, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Houston, and Los Angeles. He began his career with a Newhouse News daily, where he served on the news desk and the editorial page. He was the copy chief for The New York Sun, and founded and edited the personal finance section for Abu Dhabi-based The National, among other positions. He has interviewed Anthony Bourdain, Tom Ford, Mark Cuban, and many other individuals, and has written and edited thousands of stories and articles.

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