New York’s B12 Continues Trend of “Human-Assisted A.I.” Startups

For years, critics have viewed artificial intelligence technologies as an existential threat to human workers’ jobs (if not our lives, but that’s a whole other debate). But with the latest wave of A.I. startups, some entrepreneurs are aiming for a middle ground where humans team up with A.I. programs to take advantage of each other’s strengths.

Time will tell whether this approach is the way of the future or merely a stepping stone to a completely automated workforce made up of robots and extremely advanced software. But Nitesh Banta—co-founder and CEO of B12, a “human-assisted A.I.” software startup that announced its launch and a $12.4 million investment round today—doesn’t frame it that way.

“We don’t necessarily ask the question, ‘What can be automated?’” he says. “We start with the basis of, ‘What does this technology let us do that previously wasn’t possible?’”

B12’s 11-person team believes “you can’t play defense against technology,” and they view the automation of certain tasks as “a force for good,” Banta adds.

Nitesh Banta

Nitesh Banta

“It’s about elevating people and machines and their work together,” he says.

B12 isn’t the only company offering products and services powered by a combination of humans and A.I. technologies. In Boston, mobile app startup Lola employs travel agents who book trips for customers with the help of A.I. software, while GetHuman’s employees fight your customer service battles for you, with A.I.-related software taking some tasks off their plate. Responses to queries of Facebook’s virtual assistant “M” are generated by A.I., but reviewed and edited by human contractors. There are other examples out there, and more will likely emerge—especially since there are lots of tasks that A.I. software still can’t perform on its own.

B12, a New York-based startup with ties to Boston, is initially using its software to help businesses design and build websites. The company’s technology helps assemble a team of creative experts to complete the project, pulled from a pool of freelancers and contractors with skills in Web design, art direction, copy writing, and so on. After the software’s algorithms generate an initial draft of the website, the humans develop a polished version. Along the way, the software performs tasks like testing for bugs in the website.

The idea is the software can handle rote, mundane activities, freeing up humans to focus their time and energy on what they do best, Banta says. That allows B12 to offer a customized service on par with big Web agencies, but at “do-it-yourself pricing,” he adds. He predicts strong demand because many companies still don’t have websites that work well on mobile devices, often because they don’t have in-house Web design expertise or the budget to hire an outside firm to do the work for them.

“We’re able to democratize this type of service,” Banta says.

B12’s customers so far include a Los Angeles real estate investment firm, a Chicago production company, and a venture capital firm in Cambridge, MA.

So far, investors like what they see. B12 said today it has raised $12.4 million in a Series A round led by General Catalyst Partners. Other backers include Breyer Capital, Founder Collective, SV Angel, former Akamai CEO Paul Sagan, former Stripe CTO Greg Brockman, and CoachUp co-founder Jordan Fliegel, among others.

Adam Marcus

Adam Marcus

Banta, a former investor in General Catalyst’s Cambridge office, formed B12 about a year ago with his childhood friend, Adam Marcus. While at General Catalyst, Banta invested in Marcus’s previous startup, Locu, which was acquired by GoDaddy in 2013. Marcus, who got a PhD in computer science at MIT, serves as B12’s CTO.

The company will use the funds to primarily hire more people and boost product development, Banta says. If successful with the website-creation service, the plan is to expand to other offerings, like programs to help businesses market themselves or manage customer relationships.

“We think there will be a whole bunch of new opportunities,” Banta says.

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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