FOR THE MASSES Strip District firm aims to make AI easy to ob­tain, easy to use

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Business - By Kris B. Ma­mula

Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is the be­hind-the-cur­tains stuff guid­ing self-driv­ing cars and other com­plex tasks. De­vel­op­ing the ca­pa­bil­ity to do such things, Eric Xing says, is like build­ing your own rail­road.

Mr. Xing, co-founder and CEO of Strip District startup Pe­tuum Inc., wants to change all that by putting so­phis­ti­cated ma­chine­learn­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties at the fin­ger­tips of ev­ery­day users.

The com­pany aims to cre­ate a prod­uct as ubiq­ui­tous as Mi­crosoft Of­fice word pro­cess­ing and spread­sheet soft­ware, while bring­ing the power of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to places such as the fam­ily doc­tor’s of­fice, the shop floor of heavy man­u­fac­tur­ers, and other sites not or­di­nar­ily as­so­ci­ated with hefty com­put­ing mus­cle.

Pe­tuum, which was founded in 2016, is get­ting ready to push its prod­ucts out to the mar­ket and ex­pects to need more peo­ple to help in that ef­fort.

The 70-em­ployee com­pany re­cently raised $93 mil­lion in a sec­ond round of ven­ture fund­ing, a big in­fu­sion by any mea­sure, which was led by a sub­sidiary of SoftBank Group Corp. The $93 mil­lion fol­lowed an ini­tial round, which raised $15 mil­lion.

The new fund­ing will be used to hire en­gi­neers and to build an in­ter­nal sales and mar­ket­ing team, said Mr. Xing, who ex­pects the com­pany’s work­force will reach 200 peo­ple by the end of 2018.

Pe­tuum has three prod­ucts in beta test­ing, and Mr. Xing said they will be eas­ily adapt­able to in­di­vid­ual user needs. Other prod­uct de­tails were not avail­able, said Beth Kle­bacha, Pe­tuum’s busi­ness man­ager.

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence or ma­chine learn­ing is the ca­pa­bil­ity of a com­puter to change on its own through ex­pe­ri­ence or data anal­y­sis. With sur­pris­ing ac­cu­racy, mu­sic web­site Pan­dora and on­line re­tailer Ama­zon use ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to pre­dict what kind of songs we’d like to lis­ten to and which things we’d like to buy, for ex­am­ple.

Like the word pro­cess­ing soft­ware pro­grams used glob­ally, Pe­tuum’s goal is to make this ca­pa­bil­ity af­ford­able and easy to adapt — a “com­mod­ity that ev­ery­body can en­joy,” Mr. Xing said.

“Most in­dus­tries do not have ac­cess to ma­chine learn­ing,” he said. “What’s needed is slightly bor­ing, but some­thing func­tion­ally more ro­bust than ar­ti­sanal ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, which is the in­dus­try stan­dard to­day.

“For daily use by a wide va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries, what’s needed is a VW, not a Rolls Royce.”

Mr. Xing, a na­tive of Shang­hai, China, is well-qual­i­fied for his role at Pe­tuum. He re­ceived a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in physics from Ts­inghua Univer­sity in Bei­jing, a doc­toral de­gree in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy and bio­chem­istry from Rut­gers Univer­sity, and an­other doc­toral de­gree in com­puter science from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley.

Be­fore Pe­tuum was spun out of Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, Mr. Xing was a pro­fes­sor in CMU’s School of Com­puter Science.

His vi­sion would ex­pand ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence ap­pli­ca­tions into ar­eas such as help­ing a doc­tor find anom­alies in a med­i­cal scan with more ac­cu­racy than any physi­cian could do alone or crunch­ing sen­sor data from jet en­gines to sig­nal the need for rou­tine main­te­nance or ser­vice.

“This is an ex­plod­ing in­dus­try,” said Nick Nys­trom, in­terim di­rec­tor of the Oak­land-based Pitts­burgh Su­per­com­put­ing Cen­ter. “Ge­nomic data, en­vi­ron­men­tal data, wear­able tech­nolo­gies — many, many modal­i­ties are com­ing to­gether here.”

Com­put­er­ized­de­ci­sion-sup­port tools cur­rently help guide doc­tors in mak­ing a di­ag­no­sis, but Mr. Xing sees a big­ger role for his com­pany’s prod­uct in medicine, which will be able to scan med­i­cal ex­ams for the pres­ence of a tu­mor, for ex­am­ple.

He is fo­cused on of­fer­ing prod­ucts that are in­tu­itive to use — “off the shelf, very, very friendly in­ter­face, which would make ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence a com­mod­ity in­stead of an art piece.”

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