Steve Peak, CEO of Storyscript based in Seattle, Washington, joined Cascadia Report to talk to us about how technology is changing in response to how humans interact with it. He has been an entrepreneur and engineer for over a decade. His journey started early; building a point of sale company for around six years which while provided him many valuable experiences and learning points.
Customers are asking for things like long running business logic and long running asynchronous programming. It was a challenge that he wanted to solve, so he prototyped Storyscript, but it was early to the industry, so he put it on the back burner. He then moved to building a company called Codecov, which grew quite well in the developer ecosystem and though he exited in 2018 the team behind it are still making exciting products, and it continues to be a source of pride for Peak.
In the meantime, Storyscript grew to a team of eleven, and are looking to transform into application development. Peak was excited to share his passion for working on the future of human interaction with technology, and what he hopes to achieve in the AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) space.
“Our project is to reinvent the human-computer interaction. That's a big topic, it's difficult to think about how that could look but fundamentally, we believe that there's a next generation of creators out there that will leverage computers in a different way. We're focusing on technologies around programming synthesis and NLP, and we're looking at ways to collaborate with the computer that's a conversational dialogue. If you think about J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man, it's this kind of technology that we're working on. How to communicate with the computer using your voice and not your keyboard or mouse.
What really excites me is the opportunities in the space that we're in. We've made so many technological advances and now, I feel like we're at the new frontier for a step change in technology. There's evidence of this already in the marketplace today. It's very subtle, though, but it really feels like another frontier in technology that we're going to be embarking on.”
Peak is clearly passionate about the work that Storyscript are doing, and he is very candid about his background in programming. While admitting that he may have not followed the regular developer career path there is also the suggestion that he might not have the same approach or creativity had that journey been more conventional.
“I'm actually a college dropout. I went straight to business and started to listen to the stories of many business people; the founders of companies, but also the employees. I found myself working with small to middle sized companies, working my way through the restaurant industry, to retail, to the commercial industry for software, and providing software services. What I found was during this process was that I was kinda like the wizard in the room. I was the person that people asked; ‘Can you do this with this data? Can you do this to this system?’ And I would be the person that had to translate that intent into a computer. So I learned programming languages out of a necessity. I feel more of a problem solver than a programmer. I just use programming as a tool to solve problems.”
The idea of using skills to solve problems is a recurring theme for Peak, and he was able to apply what he learned early in his work-life to founding his own businesses.
“It was an incredible journey and I've only recently been able to articulate the subtleties of how that happened. Effectively, I had a problem that I figured out a solution for myself. It was something I had to do repeatedly. I figured I would create a workflow process to help me accomplish that task so I can just click a button and it happens. That was really personal to me because it helped my workflow, but little did I know that there were people within my community or in my work that also wanted it. I started to add a few more features, a little more integration, some new programming languages support for it and then it started to get traction from outside the company. This journey went from solving my personal problem to a solution for my friends, the workspace, to a generic problem in the ecosystem.
I sometimes say that Codecov was an accident. I don't mean to discredit it at all, actually that is the beauty of building a business where you just keep falling forward - how do you define success? By listening to customers, by getting the feedback but fundamentally, solving a problem that was inherent to yourself, and trying to generalize it to the public was a really beautiful process. That product also led me to learn more about the software ecosystem as a whole to see some of the issues and honestly, it's accessibility that I see a problem with. Out of all the people that can use a computer 99% of them don't know how to code and that to me is an inclusivity issue - why is only 1% of the world coders? That's a problem that I think is worth solving.”
The solutions to these problems may appear to be straightforward but the technology behind the ideas is constantly evolving. In 2020 many people are comfortable with the terms Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and even Natural Language Processing when they consider Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa. Looking beyond the market leaders, we asked Peak where the opportunity for Storyscript is, and how the industry is set to change in the next few years.
“We have to look at the user. What is the job the user has? What is the job to be done by the customer? And fundamentally, we have to look at what we are becoming as a user. Who are we going to be? I believe that interaction in the future is going to be a symbiotic relationship with the computer. We are going to enjoy experiences, building things together with the computer and not in isolation.
Storyscript’s mission is about the principle of how we can communicate with the computer more efficiently. Programming languages have traditionally started from the perspective of a language that a computer can understand that processes data. There's no humanity in there. There's no human statement in the definition of programming. We want to reverse the definition, to say a programming language is a way for a human to articulate its intentions to the computer. It changes the perspective of who you're serving. I believe there's a new humane interface into communicating with the computer and that's what we're going for.
I don't believe that AI is about replacing people or replacing work. There's something beautiful that computers do. They're really good at finding patterns, anomalies, and synthesizing things and simulating things, they're really good at those. But computers are really bad at raw creativity and ambiguity, seeing things that may not be. Subjective things that may not be quantifiable and these are the human comes into play. This relationship will be the ideal symbiosis for AI and humans.”
Some high profile figures in the world of technology have made efforts to warn the world about the potential for AI to become a problem in society. Elon Musk has been particularly outspoken. We asked Peak where he sees the limitations, and whether the human element will always be important to our work and day-to-day tasks.
“The threats of AI are certainly going to be real when it comes to job displacement. In a capitalistic society, it's not the responsibility of businesses - they're driven by profits. They're not measured by sustainable business models for people. That's more of the government's responsibility. I believe the future is a little bit bleak in that way, because the government needs to step up and get their act together and support the citizens as they should, because who owns businesses? Stockholders? Who owns the government? The people own the government, and we need to respect that.
When it comes to AI for what we're working on, we're looking more of that augmentation aspect of things. How can a computer help the user achieve tasks together, and not replace the user fundamentally. But ultimately, our technology, like a lot of many other technologies will fundamentally decrease the need for the amount of people in the workforce while also creating a new category of workforce. This is what we see in the gig economy - which has its own ethical issues - we saw a displacement of jobs while also creation of jobs. This is a shift in our ecosystem in a fabric of society that is inevitable. This is what's gonna happen. It's time for businesses to step up with the ethics, and for government to step up with the fixes.”
The technological and ethical challenges for the future adoption of AI may be a cause for concern, but as Peak says, as a society we must share this burden and accept that it is likely where we are headed. Everyone faces obstacles in their lives, and we asked Peak what were some of the hardest challenges he’d had to overcome in his career and what he’d learned from his experiences as a company founder.
“Challenges are interesting. You really want to fail fast and learn from those failures. The challenges I've had in my career are focused around not failing fast enough. You have to put your defenses down, you have to be able to accept defeats, and so learning how to fail faster I think is very important. It's almost counterintuitive as you are always seeking success but you're going to find success after a catalogue of failures. Some of the greatest best creators in the world, like Monet, Picasso, or Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, had 99 failures to their one success. That's the key, not focusing on one thing but trying everything and seeing what fails and what works.”
Overcoming challenges in life and work is rarely best achieved alone. Businesses, like people, work best in collaboration with others and in that spirit we asked Peak which companies he was working with in the Cascadia Corridor in his role at Storyscript. While there are a huge number of high tech companies in the Pacific Northwest in the emerging field of AI and NLP solutions he is keen to add his voice to those that are calling for more to be done to address some of the concerns around this new technology.
“We've had the pleasure to be able to chat with some people from Microsoft Research Group, from Google Brain, and all these different AI startups in the area. The fun thing would be to ask for help from anybody - your readers - let's talk about what this feature can entail. I don't believe people are challenging the Orthodox principles of how we use computers enough. We take for granted and we just accept the status quo of desktop paradigms and browser paradigms and app paradigms and these things are going to change in the future. In fact, a lot of experts believe that voice driven things like Siri and Alexa and Google assistant will actually drive 50% of our internet usage in the near future. That's an entirely new interface. That's not using the browser, that's not even using keyboard and mouse, and the industry is just sitting here being idle. We're just ignoring the elephant in the room, that there is a shift is going to be happening and people aren't really talking about it.
I think that the tech giants that actually have these exclusive voice platforms are going to be monopolies even more than they are today, when they own the interface, that is going to be a problem. And when that interface turns into a more sophisticated AI, it's going to change the way that a lot of businesses work today. Having a conversation about what the future of work in the future programming is, it needs to be an inclusive talk about the other 99% but also about the change interface that's going to be coming upon us in the next decade.”
It may seem a rather bleak prediction for the future but Peak is optimistic about the potential for new developments and new companies like Storyscript being heard in the conversation. No doubt the tech giants based in the region will continue to dominate but hopefully green shoots of change and creative approaches to this new paradigm will come from businesses in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor.
“There's definitely conversations happening on AI but it is a technology. Like the GTP-3 model, it's impressive. It's not a product though, it's a technology you can apply to business but we shouldn't just build a company to raise money off our use of GPT-3. The conversation around new interface changes is really hard to have because of the extracted nature. And that's something that even if you were to go back to before, when iPhone was first created in the App Store, if someone were to tell you like; ‘there's going to be this like device in your pocket, and it's going to have this catalog of a million plus applications that's going to power your life’, you just would be like, ‘I don't know, it's not possible’.
There's no question that apps and phones have totally changed the interface of interaction with the human, and that is going to happen again. These are my words of warning, but also my open invitation to this conversation about what the future of that will look like. Call it naivety but I don't know many companies that are actually discussing this. The closest thing might be like Google's Fuchsia operating system but it's not really positioning as a different interface as much as it could be. Anything that's driven by Google or Microsoft or Apple, has this monopoly control over the people behind it. We need to start talking about the next Linux. What is that going to look like in the future?”
Listening to Peak, it’s easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm in the subject but also his earnest desire to see businesses in the region engage with the concepts and start working together on what the new world of opportunities looks like. It’s a call to action for any Cascadia Report readers who have an interest in AI and feel they might have something to add to the discussion.
While he has described his journey as a company founder as almost an ‘accident’ we asked the young entrepreneur how his leadership style had evolved over that time - from the perspective of someone who started with his own workflow app and currently has a team of 11 behind him.
“Leadership style for me is about lowering defenses and being vulnerable. That vulnerability turns into empathy and they have a relationship with each other. I think you need to be empathetic but you also need to be brave and you need to balance these emotions. It's very tough for me to stand here sometimes and preach about something that's abstract or changing the ecosystem, like revolutionary. I need to be brave to be able to say that, but also empathetic to the users and who we're going to be impacting.
I believe strongly in sustainable business models. I'm very progressive minded, I believe in universal health care and universal basic income. I'm not profit driven, I'm sustainability driven. These things are not really appropriate conversations to have with venture capital, or the traditional, capitalist mentality. What that means to me is that our employees are healthy. These conversations need to happen. I’d rather make a company that makes a positive impact and doesn't abuse its employees or ecosystem than to make a company that's a multi-billion dollar ecosystem that destroys things that doesn't take into account user privacy or climate change, other things like that. These are important things, we're talking about the future. So we experiment with things and that's where leadership comes into play. Experiment with a four day work week, with mental health days. All these abstract concepts that you might think; ‘wait, you're paying your employees for a random Health Day? that seems crazy. They should take sick days, they should only have 10 of them a year.’ That's not how we operate and so we need to challenge the status quos constantly and that's what I believe leadership is.”
Leading a business at the cutting edge of AI and also taking the lead on discussions around the big ideas of the future of human interaction with computers has put Peak in the position to have an overview of the industry from both the outside and in. It’s a lot to condense into a few short paragraphs, but we asked Peak to try and summarise what his three main takeaways are from his journey in tech so far, and what advice he would have for anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.
1. Listen, listen a lot. It's sometimes difficult, especially when you have something to say.
2. Be tirelessly curious, it's something that's very important. That category of exploring, being endlessly curious is something that is the most, probably one of the most human qualities that we have. The reason why we're here even talking on this digital recording thing in the cloud is because of curiosity, but that'd be a driving force for many. So harnessing that is really powerful.
3. Empathy has to be in there too. That empathy means sustainability, it means being kind, it means being thoughtful and loving and expressive, putting your family first, and it means caring about your community. These are very important things and they fundamentally drive your leadership decisions, too. And I think that defines you and your business.”
You can find out more about Steve Peak and Storyscript here: https://www.storyscript.com/