Interview with Jason Eisen, Founder & CEO at UTU
UTU was created to solve our problem of building trust in our taxi app and as an alternative vision of the future in which technology can be used to govern commerce.
Know Our Company
Tell us about your journey into blockchain and the idea behind starting UTU.
UTU is an AI-powered recommendations engine, based on a human model of trust, that does not try to prescribe trust between individuals but rather to describe, in human terms, why two people may trust each other based on their relationships, past experience, and various contextual factors.
Around this AI we’re building a blockchain protocol that essentially tokenizes trust, albeit in very human terms. We’re able to incentivize the growth of a truly trust-powered network of digital commerce for any real world or digital service.
In a future economy where AIs will replace many jobs while falling production costs ushers in a shift from scarcity to abundance, people will increasingly demand trusted service providers, ideally suited to their values and preferences.
We started UTU by accident. In the early days of taxi apps and e-hailing, we created a taxi app in Nairobi, Kenya called MARAMOJA and realized pretty quickly that the problem was not about just finding a taxi, but finding a trusted taxi. We wanted to redesign the entire taxi app concept around this idea of trust as a core value proposition.
We talked to thousands of people and quickly deduced that everyone bases trust in personal relationships. We built a primitive version of what would become our trust engine to amazing results. It drove huge improvements in customer satisfaction and ride completions, empowered our network of driver partners to build their own clientele under our umbrella, and to date has kept our riders 100% safe in a city with a significant crime problem.
The early success of our trust engine led us to question why all of the digital infrastructures around building trust on marketplaces and online platforms has nothing to do with this simple fact about how people trust, but focuses instead on aggregated star ratings and reviews from the community at large, which we generally know are vulnerable to fraud, manipulation, and abuse.
UTU was created to solve our problem of building trust in our taxi app and as an alternative vision of the future in which technology can be used to govern commerce in a way that embraces our humanity rather than replacing it. Since then, it has grown thanks to entrepreneurs employing our trust engine to help them solve trust issues in mobility and other sectors. UTU is pioneering a new class of service that we call Trust Infrastructure as a Service (TIAAS), which will soon be available as an API and suite of smart contracts for sharing economy platforms and digital marketplaces to leverage for better trust in their communities.
Using blockchain we can deliver this trust-focused value proposition in its purest form, letting users own and control their own data and tying endorsements to economic incentives.
What makes blockchain an attractive technology for smart contract signing?
To implement smart contracts in a distributed and decentralized system, and in particular when enforcing agreements without relying on trusted third parties, it’s necessary to reach a consensus among agents about the system’s state, the agents’ actions that were observed, and the interpretation of the smart contract itself. This is exactly what blockchain technology provides.
People were actually researching automatic contracting as well as consensus technologies and related issues for decades before the advent of blockchain.
Blockchain is just the culmination of all this research, rather than something that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. What it enabled, however, were widely adopted practical implementations of a truly distributed and decentralized consensus technology, as proven by Bitcoin, Ethereum and now various upcoming “third generation” platforms such as Æternity, on which UTU builds its protocol.
What does your ‘Ideal Customer’ Profile look like? Which new geographies are you currently targeting?
Our ideal customer is essentially any two-sided marketplace or platform. Our value proposition is most attractive for platforms on which users are exposed to some sort of risk in the transaction. When you hire a coder online (or a babysitter, taxi, plumber, or doctor), you’re exposed to risk. Yes, the platform takes away much of that risk on the traditional side, and in the decentralized version of these platforms, the transaction itself can be trustless through the blockchain, but there’s an inherent amount of risk in the subjective quality of the service delivered and the likelihood of a good fit between the customer and the service provider.
Right now, most platforms use simple star ratings or mostly anonymous reviews to inform good matches, yet lack of trust prevents most of these platforms from crossing the chasm into mainstream adoption. In short, you could say our ideal customer is anyone who’s frustrated with star ratings and reviews and is looking for a better way to build trust on their platform.
What are the foundational tenets of your blockchain platform?
Humanizing digital trust – You are more than a score. Trust is individual, relational, contextual, and evolving. It can’t be prescribed, only described. To date, most companies have taken a data-centric approach to modeling trust, framing it in terms of quantifiable scores, ratings, and confidence intervals. Instead, we transparently evaluate every buyer and seller in relation to each other and real-world contextual factors.
Getting money out of trust – And we mean that both ways it could be read. Our two-token ecosystem prevents bad actors from buying into our trust ecosystem while also allowing good actors within the ecosystem to earn tokens by helping to build the network of trusted service providers and drive good outcomes for fellow users.
Fraud-proof by design. Ratings and review fraud has become so widespread at this point that it is considered standard operating procedure by many online sellers and service providers. Meanwhile, it has become its own industry of misinformation and manipulation that depresses outcomes on sharing and eCommerce platforms. By building an economic model optimized for trust, we can offer a better incentive to be a good actor in the network than a bad one.
Is blockchain scalable as a stable platform? What are the possible roadmaps you foresee in its mass adoption?
A number of recent, or soon-to-be-launched blockchain platforms specifically aim to tackle the known scalability issues of e.g. Bitcoin or Ethereum. Many different approaches being trialed, such as alternative consensus protocols like (Delegated) Proof of Stake, amending Proof of Work (PoW)-based chains with side channels, and others. There is a lot of heated discussion about the general applicability, advantages and disadvantages of these approaches. Some groups try to evaluate their system’s possible behavior more formally, while others take a more ad-hoc approach.
Personally, perhaps mostly owing to my background research on game theory-based negotiation protocols in multi-agent systems, I prefer well-modeled and analyzed results over less formal speculation.
In this light, regarding consensus mechanisms, only PoW has so far proven to stand the test of time, and even then only for popular blockchains, because smaller ones are susceptible to 51% attacks, as the recent events have shown. In this light, we can only hope that Æternity, being our platform of choice, will grow quickly and become decentralized enough to avoid this.
I’m very confident about the quality of their design and implementation of their core components, provided smart contract languages and SDKs. They enable easy access to components like state channels for scalability, first class oracles to connect to off-chain services, and others. They have a very high-quality team for this in place, and it shows. So we indeed believe that Æternity will scale well, and be easily adopted by many distributed app developers, leading to mass adoption.
How could companies like UTU make blockchain deliver economic benefits as well as social goodwill?
We’re actually super excited about the impacts of a system like ours at scale. In a future economy where AIs will replace many jobs while falling production costs ushers in a shift from scarcity to abundance, people will increasingly demand trusted service providers, ideally suited to their values and preferences. As other AIs replace jobs, UTU’s AI will help drive more and better transactions while our blockchain protocol provides people a means to monetize their networks of trusted service providers, earning income by passively helping their friends to have good transaction outcomes and driving business to service providers whom they trust and support.
How deep are you into emerging technologies like Automation, IoT, and AI/Machine Learning? Do you see blockchain intersecting at some point with these technologies?
UTU provides a web service which provides personalized recommendations about trusted service providers. For this, we employ several graph algorithms, ML, clustering and other AI techniques to learn how to show you the best possible recommendation for a particular service, at a particular place and time, contextually aware of key contextual factors that may impact your decision-making.
We also need to have access to relevant data such as users’ profile data, their relationships in social networks, their service usage and feedback about it, and so on. To obtain this data, we’re going to reward users for data provision with tokens, using the UTU blockchain protocol which is a set of smart contracts. For example, users will be able to make staked endorsements of service providers, and profit from successful endorsements according to their stake. So in this way, UTU is already in the business of intersecting AI and blockchain.
The Crystal Gaze
What AI start-ups and labs are you keenly following?
I am partial to applications of AI that seek to embrace our humanity rather than replace it. The work being done at the University of Southampton around AI for trust is great and they’ve been super supportive of us. Meanwhile, Raven Protocol is building a decentralized protocol for training deep learning networks that will democratize access to computing power.
Fasal from India is building AI disease prediction models for farmers that will have transformational effects. Metrix.ai from Russia is going to humanize and personalize our experience interacting with brands online.
We host the NairobiAI community out of a co-working space we run in Nairobi, Kenya called UTU House (Humanity House) – we’re seeing more and more young AI enthusiasts come through all the time.
In general, I think that some of the most transformational applications of AI are going to come from Africa and other emerging markets.
What technologies within CRYPTO and AI computing are you interested in?
In crypto, I’m particularly interested in practical implementations of anonymization and privacy-preservation techniques, as this is very relevant to our platform. We envision services, in the medical domain for example, where not everybody will be comfortable giving recommendations. So while we’re going to provide fine-grained access control to any provided data or endorsement, that the user also may change at any time, we should be able to give anonymized recommendations which nonetheless are trustable enough.
In AI, given the wide range of algorithms, we’re looking to apply, I’m really interested in the whole field. Of particular interest are methods of learning from sparse data, because not all of our data sets will reach the size of “Big Data” very quickly.
What industries you think would be fastest to adopting blockchain with smooth efficiency? What are the new emerging markets for blockchain technology?
I think it’s going to be about places where there are no trusted alternatives, as it means there are also fewer vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Eventually, I think it will supplant much of the infrastructure on which we currently rely.
This is especially true in African and other developing countries, where there are generally less trusted institutions available than, for example, in the West. This concerns almost every industry, but we’re already seeing a surge in distributed apps being built for things like making insurance more accessible (such as RideSafe Africa) or social savings communities (Chamapesa). Similarly to how many African countries were able to “leapfrog” the need for large-scale installation of phone landlines because of the widespread adoption of mobile phones, they might be able to circumvent the need for developing many more trusted companies and institutions by adopting blockchain technology and applications on a large scale.
What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?
Gosh… I guess the only productivity hack I believe in is hiring brilliant, passionate people. Everything else has a pretty marginal return in comparison.
Bastian: Have proper development processes in place, but don’t be afraid to skip steps if they’re out of proportion. Small things shouldn’t require heaps of overhead work. But at the same time, be careful not to overdo this.
Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:
tak lo – founder of Zeroth.ai
Thank you, Jason! That was fun and hope to see you back on AiThority soon.
UTU is an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered recommendations engine, based on a real human model of trust, and a blockchain protocol that helps us deliver our Trust Infrastructure as a Service (TIaaS).
Disrupting current rating, review, and scoring systems used across the web, UTU does not try to prescribe trust between individuals but rather to describe, in human terms – why a consumer and a service provider may trust each other based on their individual relationships, past experiences, and various contextual factors.
UTU provides our trust infrastructure to traditional sharing economy/eCommerce marketplaces via API, while employing a suite of smart contracts and oracles to support decentralized applications. Our trust infrastructure drives all key marketplace metrics including conversion, satisfaction, retention, and viral acquisition.