AI software maker Nara Logics swaps CEOs, adds top brain scientist as adviser

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There are staff shifts afoot at Nara Logics, the Cambridge artificial intelligence company that is helping businesses better understand their customers.

Jana Eggers, the Lycos and Intuit veteran who joined the company as president in September, has replaced co-founder Tom Copeman as chief executive. Neuroscientist and Princeton professor Sebastian Seung, who is something of rockstar for his work on the wiring of the human brain, has also joined company’s advisory board.

It isn’t unusual for a young company to bring in an experienced executive to replace a founder, but changing a CEO usually doesn’t means things are going well. Copeman welcomed Eggers’ appointment in a press release, saying she “has demonstrated that she’s the obvious choice to lead the company in this next phase.”

Every business seeks to know its buyers better, but Nara’s approach is deeply influenced by neuroscience. The company’s software mimics methods that the brain uses to parse information, and in doing so claims to better spot relevant connections in a data set.

For example, the software can digest information about your favorite movies and use that information to make recommendations about what other titles you will like.

It isn’t just meant for entertainment — Nara is beginning to apply this match-finding technique across industries. The company is working with an airline to perfect a mechanism to match frequent fliers with the best-placed seats, and another effort is in place to determine how the texture of a consumer product, like a lotion or a shampoo, affects its sales.

“The ground that we’re breaking is that it’s truly individualized,” meaning that the software thinks like an individual would, Eggers said. Those mechanisms are based on work that co-founder Nathan Wilson did as a master’s student and researcher at MIT.

“Nathan figured out how to model that in computers,” Eggers said. “We figured out how to apply that to business problems.”

Along with Wilson’s one-time research colleague Seung, the company’s advisory board also includes Wilson’s mentor at MIT, neuroscientist Mriganka Sur, and another colleague Emily Hueske, who now works at the the Center for Brain and Science at Harvard. The board’s role is to keep Nara’s software on the cutting edge, dynamically updating the product as the science informing it improves.

So if Nara has created software that’s in some ways smarter than the human brain, why not apply it to one of mankind’s grand challenges? How to tackle climate change or, say, find a way to reach Mars?

Movie and hotel recommendations aren’t just a lucrative first step, they’re also a warmup for tougher problems, Eggers said. “Before we go in and work on a problem like cancer, we want to make sure it works on something we all understand,” she said.

And what about matching people with compatible partners? “You know, I’ve been asked that quite a bit,” Eggers laughed. For now, she recommends comparing movie listings generated by the Nara system with the one it generated for your significant other.

Image via Flickr user Miemo Penttinen

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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