Creating artificial intelligence requires genuine smarts. Becoming thought leaders of tomorrow takes real guts today.
Getting your training at UNLV? Then partnering with your alma mater to get it done? That’s genius strategy any day.
“It’s that hometown pride, being able to work with UNLV and be where we were born and raised and make this area better,” says Andrew Torres, ’13 BS computer science and mathematics, a partner and lead engineering manager at AI Media Lab in Las Vegas.
The difference that pride makes? “It’s massive,” says Russ Logan, ’01 BS Business Management, the company's managing partner. “Especially with Black Fire, UNLV being a partner here (with Caesars Entertainment), you can feel it the second you walk in here.”
The company is based at Black Fire Innovation, a business incubator that brings together the UNLV's economic development office, faculty and student researchers, and private industry partners, particularly in hospitality and entertainment.
Tomorrow’s marvels are being birthed there today with UNLV brainpower. Another alumnus at AI Media Labs is Monty Coon, vice president of dialogue.
“UNLV was essential,” said Coon about the university working with the 8-month-old startup company. “Not only did we get business right away, but we also had a lot of collaboration and mentorship that came from the UNLV team.”
One bit of business they got right away: Digital President Whitfield, an AI avatar of UNLV’s campus commander. Launched Feb. 1, it enables users to chat with his virtual twin on more than 500 subjects, stretching from campus resources and student concerns to financial aid and even personal facts. Among the latter: the live Whitfield’s real dog, Groot, an English mastiff; his love of trucks; and his natural empathy, given his own experience as an occasionally less-than-sterling student. (C’mon, you know you want to ask him about that).
“You build a companionship relationship with it, just like you would a person,” said Logan, whose family includes yet another UNLV connection – his dad, Rich Logan, was a physical education student and Rebels defensive back in 1969.
While the digi-prez program is a mind-blower, it had an impressive predecessor in a digital representation of New Age giant Deepak Chopra. Based on Chopra’s “Seven Pillars of Wellness,” the program has been on the market a little more than a year and is available on Apple and Google device app stores. So far, it has logged 41,000 separate conversations, and counting.
“You can speak to him and leave better than when you came,” Logan said. “You can talk about stress and diet and exercise. You can meditate with him, you can do journaling with him. (Users) get very emotional. And his empathy that comes back to them is just incredible."
People, Torres says, have become more receptive to the idea of AI beings as these concepts become more widespread. Facebook's rebranding as Meta is a hint of where our technological gatekeepers see this headed. Preparing consumers for that, however, comes with challenges that have been tied to technological advances for as long as there have been, well, technological advances.
“New technology is scary,” Logan said. “When movies first came out, everybody ran out of the theater because they didn’t know what they were watching. They thought it was going to hit them” — as in the silent film, The Great Train Robbery, released 119 years ago.
Today the fear centers on AI programs replacing people and costing them their livelihoods. AI Media Lab leaders understand the concerns, Coon says, but don’t share them. “We believe AI is an extension of people, not a replacement. People don’t have enough hours in a day to do everything, and AI can work 24/7, be in a million places at once, and never get burned out.”
But that doesn’t mean AI is meant to replace the human experiences. “In fact, it should free up more of (a person’s) time to have higher quality human experiences.”
Mindful also of privacy and hacking concerns, the AI-crafters say they are diligent about placing digital guardrails in place to prevent AI programs from going, well, rogue. (Think: The Terminator.)
Steaming ahead with projects, the team is working on a digital AI healthcare application with a local municipal government. Also in the early stages is a potential partnership with experts from UNLV's Department of Brain Health for AI avatars that can act as guides and companions to those affected by neurodegenerative diseases.
Oh, and since this is Las Vegas, let’s talk entertainment.
“There’s interesting conversations we’re having with some of the casinos to take digital avatar representations of some of the people that perform here, people in residency, or who own restaurants, and have conversations, whether it’s in elevators or out on the Strip,” Logan said. “There’s a ton of cool stuff we can do with digital experiences on the casino floors.”
Can they, perhaps, recreate the Rat Pack and gather them around a craps table?
“Exactly!” Logan exclaims. “We can take a QR code and take a screenshot of it and pull up an interactive Sinatra! There’s a lot of taking it to the next level that we can do.”
Imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes’ reaction: Ring-a-ding-ding. This AI jazz is quite the thing.