How Vinaya is trying to build an emotional AI life coach with wearable tech

We speak to Kate Unsworth about the potential of her Zenta biometric band
Vinaya's bold vision for emotional AI

I'm sitting in the loft of Vinaya's three storey Shoreditch HQ, eavesdropping. To my left, on a low sofa, there's a snappy, no nonsense debate about marketing campaign software. So far, so startup. To my right, on metal kitchen stools, it's enthusiastic clean eating recommendations.

The wearable tech startup, founded by Kate Unsworth, Fabio Pania and Dan Moller, walked the line between technology and wellbeing with more class than most with its first product, the modular smart jewellery Altruis. According to Unsworth, Altruis' anxiety reducing features are "the tip of the iceberg." With the Indiegogo launch of Zenta, a biometric, emotion sensing bracelet that learns your emotional profile over time, Vinaya (previously Kovert Designs) isn't just releasing its second lifestyle wearable, it's also announcing bold intentions to the world.

Let's start by being clear about what Vinaya is aiming for. This particular moonshot might seem to be on a smaller, more intimate scale than the ones we're used to (space travel, robotics, internet balloons). But what's at stake is actually far greater - our productivity, stress levels, relationships and happiness.

"It's like a superhuman therapist," says Unsworth. "One in four people suffer from mental health issues and around 88% of those go untreated. If you have the time and the money and the resources and you live in a city that has a good therapist, then you go to a therapist. So you've got someone who is smart and experienced but their pool of experience that is completely relevant to you is actually relatively small. And that's only if you have the time and the money."

Artificial emotional intelligence

When pressed on the big picture, Unsworth points me towards an op-ed and animated video by The School of Life founder/modern philosopher Alain de Botton. He details a tech concept named Socrates (after the ancient Greek philosopher who reminded us to 'know yourself') and it's clear this is the blueprint for Zenta. Socrates is a "wearable life coach" that has a "total understanding of our mental health", de Botton narrates over images of a future smartwatch. It is always on hand to counsel us, tell us when we need an extra challenge, "correct our emotional blindspots" and wean us away from unhelpful desires and tendencies. This is beginning to be known as artificial emotional intelligence.

The AI and machine learning underpinning the Zenta platform is all being built in house - Vinaya raised $3m in seed funding at the end of 2015 and is looking for around $10m more next year. It currently has over 40 employees including neuroscientists, computer scientists and data researchers. Unsworth tells me the team has been building partnerships with research institutions and universities working in this space but the CEO is keeping quiet on precisely which until a "big announcement" later this year.

The therapist comparison isn't all that unusual. Fitness trackers are regularly compared to virtual PTs or coaches.

In this case the user provides Zenta with biometric data such as heart rate variability and galvanic skin response combined with contextual lifestyle data (from third party apps) like the weather, your calendar/schedule and what you're doing on social media. The platform will compare your behaviour and profile to "millions of other data points".

"Take it to artificial emotional intelligence," pitches Unsworth. "You know where this is going: so many data points, the technology doesn't forget and it can profile people exactly like you, not just who have the same exercise regime and work schedule as you.

"Imagine being able to engage with your own personal coach or therapist digitally. A lot of people would feel more comfortable giving their data or expressing themselves to something that is a digital version."

The examples of personal, actionable insights include knowing that a yoga class or calling your mother every day really do make you happier. Or that taking a financial meeting on a Monday morning stresses you out.

But the 'know yourself' features stretch to intuitive fertility tracking for women, based on activity, sleep and mood data, and the app/wearable combination can aid you in breathing and mindfulness exercises via subtle vibrations from the bracelet when you need it.

Unsworth also hopes that a cool, lifestyle brand like Vinaya can get people taking about their emotional wellbeing more, especially in the UK. The Indiegogo campaign hints at a new "emotion lexicon" for digitally communicating how we feel which we hope leans more towards the sensitive suggestions from The School of Life and less towards meme heavy emojis.

Getting there

If you want to read up on the science that Zenta is based on, Vinaya Lab's neuroscientist Tarek Akkawi has published a short primer on studying physiological signals which is worth a read. Essentially, Vinaya is using an academic model which maps emotions according to valence (attraction or aversion), arousal and control. So, for instance, "research into anger shows that a number of parameters in the Heart Rate Variability index decrease... With regards to EDA (electrodermal activity), a similar outcome is observed. An increase in skin conductivity is reported during the experience of anger including both phasic and tonic activity."

Unsworth admits that there is still a lot of work to be done before Zenta ships in March/April of 2017. This is a long term platform that will grow as more people use it, just as voice recognition and natural language systems do for AI assistants.

"We're going to engage 5,000 people in a beta," says Unsworth. "We've been testing this for a long time, the lab has been testing it but it only really starts to have significant benefits when you have a critical mass. So we don't want to push it out to market before we have that critical mass."

If the idea of Vinaya accessing your carefully crafted messages to gauge your innermost feelings feels you with dystopian dread, Unsworth's concern for privacy should allay at least some of your fear.

After we chat she is heading to lunch with her pro consumer data adviser. For Zenta owners, opting in to everything from adding extra layers of data from third party to allowing your anonymised information to help university studies will be baked into the UI so you can tweak your settings at any time. "It's not just going to be a quick wearable tech Ts and Cs, check it and never see it again. We don't just want to cover our asses; we're about what's best for the user."

Vinaya's CEO is proud that she's offering something fresh in terms of privacy and is also bullish on Vinaya's overall position. The sensors are "significantly more advanced" than Fitbit. Big tech companies like Apple aren't "nimble enough to get the latest sensors", Jawbone made a fantastic sensor packed wearable but was "too early" and rival startups are "very early days" and "they're not going to have the full stack."

As for attention and emotion stimulating headgear like Thync, Unsworth is very suspicious: "My fear is that people don't understand it. When you stimulate your adrenal glands, when they shouldn't be stimulated, it can result in adrenal fatigue where you start burning adrenaline as opposed to the food you're consuming."

In fact, the best comparison Unsworth can think of is Headspace – the meditation app – which isn't in hardware at all. In fact, she'd love to partner with them. "My whole vision, from day one, is that we want to build technology that fades into the background, that operates like oxygen," she says. "This idea that oxygen fades into the background, it's there every single second of everyday. You need it but you don't think about it."

What do you think?

Connect with Facebook, Twitter, or just enter your email to sign in and comment.