The First Robot Venture Capitalist Won't Do Interviews

It's actually just a piece of software that the company uses to help make decisions, like every other company in the world.

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May 13 2014, 7:35pm
Image: Shutterstock

A venture capital firm in Hong Kong just named a robot (technically, a piece of software) to its board of directors, where the algorithm, named VITAL, will become a full, voting member and will weigh in on key investment decisions. Naturally, I wanted to talk to VITAL about this major life event. 

You see, normally, when someone is promoted to a board of directors, the person would like to discuss how years of hard work finally paid off. Unfortunately, VITAL wasn’t available to comment, because VITAL can’t talk, and it can’t hear, and it can’t be a real, functional executive of a company.

“Unfortunately you can’t have a chat with VITAL. It’s deaf,” Ashley Highland, a spokesperson for the VC firm, Deep Knowledge Ventures, wrote to me in an email. “Just kidding :). The machine has no voice. Of course, it is able to communicate, but its language is a bit far from human natural speech yet. IT-specialists are already working on this. However, we can ask it the crucial questions and get proper answers.”

If that answer makes you skeptical that VITAL is anything but a nice piece of software that can spit out useful information as long as you give it something to work with—like TurboTax or a calculator or any number of proprietary stock forecast algorithms—you’re not alone. 

For the moment at least, this is a gimmick. There is literally nothing to suggest that VITAL has any sort of capabilities beyond any other proprietary analysis software.

But Deep Knowledge Ventures might be on to something. To keep with the VC-theme, what happens when robots are able to analyze every prospective startup, consider the market, and make investment decisions autonomously? What happens when it can argue about the best way to nurture those startups? That sort of capability is on the way, and this particular stunt aside, they might eventually be better than humans at it.

The existing structure of Deep Knowledge Ventures is already shrouded a bit in mystery—the company is led by Russian Dmitry Kamenskiy, who cofounded the Center for Biogerontology and Regenerative Medicine (VITAL analyzes only companies involved in regenerative medicine)—but the rest of the board consists of “five anonymous partners, all high net worth individuals from Hong Kong, Russia, and the UK,” according to Highland. 

She says that the board will only put money into companies that VITAL’s algorithm suggests are a good bet, which isn’t too different from any other company using some proprietary analysis software or equation to make decisions. 

“It probably will not be interested in voting for the most beautiful curtains in the office, but all the investment decisions will be made considering VITAL’s vote,” she said.

Andrew Garazha, who worked on developing the algorithm, says that it has already transitioned from being a “high-end decision helper” to being a “decision maker system with the right to vote.”

So far, VITAL has helped the VC firm invest in two companies, including Baltimore’s InSilico Medicine. Alex Zhavoronkov, InSilico’s CEO, told me that he does not “talk” to VITAL, but that in his dealings with Deep Knowledge Ventures, the company has acted as though the algorithm is a real human.

“The fact that they started treating their system as an intelligent entity and an equal from the very beginning is very impressive,” he told me. “They even gave it a human name [ed note: I don’t know any humans named “Vital”]. I think this is the way to go for any team aspiring to do something great in machine intelligence.”

I’d love to find out what the robot itself thinks, but it isn’t ready to talk to me yet.