Artificien: Big Data for All

User data is precious yet powerful. Tech giants go to great lengths to collect every byte of their customers’ personal information. Often buried deep in the “privacy policy” which is rarely read are agreements that give companies like Google and Facebook access to user data, which is owned by the consumer. These companies apply artificial intelligence (AI) models onto this data to unearth insights that can greatly improve their products and business strategy. Consumers, however, are never compensated for their personal information. Moreover, consumer privacy rights prohibit this precious data from being shared with third parties, so they remain locked up in highly-protected databases of corporate R&D departments. The result is a monopolistic control over consumer data held by few powerful firms, and a lack of compensation for the consumers that are the root source of these corporate insights.

Artificien, a startup founded by Jake Epstein ’21 and Matt Kenney ’21, seeks to give the ownership of personal information back to the consumer and democratize access to user data. Leveraging sophisticated blockchain technologies, Artificien is building a platform to allow users to “sell” access to their de-identified consumer data to interested buyers, who can use these data to derive information that will better guide their businesses.

Who are the interested buyers? They are usually firms that lack access to big data needed for developing advanced AI models. Today’s AI technologies such as machine learning require vast training datasets for development. For example, YouTube’s curator feature, which recommends new videos based on your view history, has great accuracy in predicting user preferences because the AI has been trained over large amounts of historic user data.

Access to insightful user data is often limited to a few giant technology conglomerates. Hence, it is exceptionally difficult for small and emerging companies or research scientists to build and train AI technologies due to their lack of scale and access. Artificien seeks to change this by giving users the power to decide whether they would like to sell access to their anonymized consumer data to willing buyers.

The founders’ plan is to implement this revolutionary, patent-pending technology via a simple interface: users can choose what kind of data they would like to sell, and Artificien will handle the match-making between the user and potential buyers. Types of data include usage data, such as music preferences on Spotify or Amazon shopping preferences. Such data will all be anonymized because Artificien employs a technique called federated learning which trains the AI model directly on the users’ devices. Thus, the consumers’ data never leave their devices. Compensation delivery will also be seamless, immediately credited to the user’s account from which they can withdraw. Usage of a blockchain network provides a flexible architecture, meaning participants can join and leave actively, seamlessly and anonymously.

Artificien’s mission is not only to fairly compensate users for their personal information, but also to open the avenues of AI development to all organizations, not just giant technology companies. In turn, the field of AI can advance at a much faster pace. Increased access can fuel the rapid growth of new startups that can utilize AI technologies towards developing innovative products for the world. Artificien is essentially commoditizing data access with the hopes that increased data accessibility will further spur innovations in user-tailored products and services.

The Artificien team consists of Epstein, Kenney and Tench Coxe ’21. The young entrepreneurs have met and discussed their vision with numerous venture capitalists. Although they have not yet begun funding rounds, they have received invaluable advice from successful entrepreneurs and startup investors. The two founders frequently work in the Hanover downtown Magnuson Incubator Space and are members of the Magnuson Student Leadership Board. Here, they contribute towards planning various programs hosted by the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship (formerly the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, or the DEN) that seek to promote the entrepreneurial culture at Dartmouth. The two sophomores have enjoyed the variety of resources provided for student-entrepreneurs at the Center, including exclusive networking opportunities with Dartmouth alumni entrepreneurs and investors.

Both Epstein and Kenney were interested in entrepreneurship since they stepped onto campus their freshman year. They first launched a coffee brewing and distribution company called Top Floor Coffee from their dorm room, serving Dartmouth students around campus via a delivery and subscription model. They invested in brewing equipment and supplies, and they quickly became experts in the practice. They were approached by Leanbox for a buyout and “hireout” offer, where they would be positioned to spearhead Leanbox’s newest product line of hyper-concentrated caffeine drinks, in return for a combined 30 percent stake in the division. They would, however, have to put their academic careers on pause and work full-time for the company.

Ultimately, Epstein and Kenney declined the lucrative offer. The idea for Artificien was born the summer thereafter, when the sophomores returned from their summer internships. Kenney worked at a bioinformatics laboratory, which designed specialized antibodies using machine learning. This is where Kenney realized the difficulties that labs and small organizations had in accessing the data necessary to train AI models. Epstein worked at a family office that invested in the blockchain space, where he became familiar with the inner mechanisms of blockchain – the technology that makes cryptocurrencies possible. The two founders shared their experiences over the summer and from there arose the idea for Artificien.

Epstein, Kenney, and Coxe have a big vision for Artificien. The team plans to utilize Dartmouth’s flexible graduation timeline, which allows student entrepreneurs to postpone their graduation while they pursue their ventures, to their advantage. They are preparing to begin initial venture rounds this year, hoping to raise enough money to work on the company full-time. Furthermore, the founders hope to impart their wisdom and experiences on like-minded students through their involvement with the various programs at the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship. As the only known firm in its niche industry with a provisional patent on the novel technology, Artificien is very well-positioned to revolutionize the big data space.