Johnnie Wisdom Meets Artificial Intelligence

April 25, 2018 | By Anthony Muljat (SF17)

Mark Stephen Meadows (SF93), founder and CEO of Botanic Technologies, gives a talk.

Artificial intelligence technology has been making a splash in industries as diverse as social media, banking, and customer service.

One of the most prominent innovators in this field is SJC alumnus Mark Stephen Meadows (SF93), founder and CEO of Botanic Technologies, which designs personalized chatbots and 3D avatars for Fortune 100 clients such as Skype and Logitech, as well as for government agencies.

A chatbot is a computer program that analyzes input text from the user and constructs a response based on the language libraries to which it has access.

For Meadows, the journey to this leading role in information technology started while he was an undergraduate on the Santa Fe campus in the early 1990s. Before the commercial internet made file-sharing an everyday activity, he and his friend ran a cable between two dorms to connect their computers.

Meadows left St. John’s briefly to attend art school at the end of his sophomore year, but returned a year later. Soon, as part of the math and science portions of the curriculum, he was using advanced calculus techniques to calculate, among other things, the pressure that light exerts on a given surface.

“What that taught me was that I was able to confront any hard problem,” Meadows says, “that it was really just a matter of intellectual fortitude, more than it was some kind of God-given talent. And learning to confront those problems with the rigorous detail that those hard problems require is what St. John’s taught me.”

After graduation, he moved to San Francisco and worked in the fields of virtual reality, research and development, and the early commercial internet. He started his first AI firm in 2005. As a proof of concept, his team culled data from hundreds of celebrity interviews to feed to their bots. Meadows recalls a breakthrough experience he had with a bot that mimicked Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“What we did learn from that was that personality is the user experience of artificial intelligence, and we learned that if you are not approaching the design of these systems from the end-user perspective, and how we as humans talk, then you end up making a system that most people don’t either recognize the value of, nor how to interact with it.”

Meadows took that insight with him to found Botanic Technologies in 2011. One of the biggest challenges Botanic is tackling is how to design bots that can maintain cultural and social sensitivity in a wide range of contexts. Meadows said that Herodotus’ The Histories, a book he has read about eight times, has guided his approach to this issue in its ethical significance.

“Herodotus, for me, is valuable because (The Histories) basically says people have ways of determining what’s right and wrong, and those ways are very subjective and according to the consensus that they build. And so now, today, as we deploy systems that are distributed globally, and we look at how we can work together as a planet to build these systems, we’re going to always be coming back to this core question of how do we address that individual user ... so that their values are represented.”