Raleigh start-up wants to make AI understandable. CEO Mike Capps has a record of success.

Diveplane is now in the midst of a dozen pilot projects that among other things have it working with the military.
Diveplane is now in the midst of a dozen pilot projects that among other things have it working with the military. US Army

While the company’s new, the technology behind the Raleigh artificial-intelligence start-up Diveplane Corp. has been under development for about seven years, CEO Mike Capps says.

Diveplane is essentially a spinoff of Hazardous Software, a firm founded in 2007 that has since done “a mix of classified and unclassified work,” says Capps, the former head of Epic Games in Cary.

One of its co-founders, N.C. State University alumnus Chris Hazard, is the prime mover behind the AI project now unfolding under the Diveplane umbrella, Capps said in an interview Wednesday, a day after breaking his silence on the new company at a conference in Aspen, Colorado.

Diveplane is touting the possibilities of what it calls “understandable AI,” which Capps explained is a type of problem-solving system that shows users how the software arrives at its conclusions and gives them an opportunity to tweak and retest the logic that drives them.

The company’s software is proprietary, but Capps argues that its approach ultimately promises users more transparency than they would get from open-source initiatives like Google’s TensorFlow project.

A user might be able to read and analyze the code behind something like TensorFlow, but with AI and machine learning that’s not enough to ensure an understanding of how a system works because it can run information through billions of cells, he said.

MIke Capps

The “human brain can’t easily work its way through” the decision process that occurs when a computer actually runs the code , Capps said.

He argued that it’s better, for example, to have an AI system that’s helping a bank decide what do with a loan application produce its recommendation and alongside that show how it would have advised handling some previous applications with known outcomes.

The idea is to make it “transparent in its thinking process as opposed to in its source code,” Capps said, explaining what he, Hazard and fellow Diveplane and Hazardous Software exec Mike Resnick are driving at.

Diveplane moved into its own offices on Dec. 1, but kept a low profile until Capps’ appearance Tuesday on a panel at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2018 conference in Aspen. He shared the stage with former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and General Motors Vice President for Strategy Mike Ableson.

Capps is probably the best-known of Diveplane’s principals for having been Epic’s CEO from 2004 to 2013. The game company at that time was riding high on the success of its franchises “Gears of War” and “Infinity Blade.”

His new start-up has attracted about $3.5 million in investment, coming in the form of a “convertible debt” that could give investors an ownership stake in Diveplane sometime down the road.

Its web site highlights the participation of among others UNC system Board of Governors member Anna Spangler Nelson, former N.C. Budget Director Lee Roberts, former Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and local venture capitalist Steve Nelson.

Capps said he knows Steve Nelson through a 3-D printing start-up called Carbon Inc. Nelson was a co-founder of that company, which commercialized technology invented by UNC-Chapel Hill chemistry professor Joe DeSimone and others at the university. Capps was an “informal adviser” to it.

Diveplane’s now in the midst of a dozen pilot projects that among other things have it working with a health insurer, a NASCAR team and the military.

The projects are “all over the place, purposely, to ensure that we’re correct in our thesis that this going to help a whole lot of different people and companies in a lot of different ways,” Capps said.

The NASCAR connection has Diveplane working with the team to solve one of the bottlenecks of car design, namely the need to rely on a driver’s feedback to validate the products of computer modeling. “If you can imagine simulating a a NASCAR driver so well you can design vehicles around them, that’s the direction we’re going,” he said.

At Tuesday’s Aspen conference appearance, Capps stressed that Diveplane is security conscious, to the point it doesn’t have a wi-fi system in its offices.

Both Capps and Hazard have what Capps termed a “civilian-military background,” having worked with the various armed services without actually serving in them. Capps studied and taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and developed the game “America’s Army” for the U.S. Army to use in its recruiting effort. Hazard has worked on projects for the Army and for NATO.

Security-wise, “we treat AI like it’s weaponizable because it is,” Capps told the audience in Aspen.

During Wednesday’s interview, he said that issue shouldn’t “cramp us any time soon” when it comes to finding customers and doing business.

Diveplane’s customer base already includes one company headquartered in Europe that has a local office, he said. And Europe’’s data-privacy rules give Diveplane a broader opening because the start-up embraces the idea that everyone has the right to ask that any data about them be deleted.

The company’s AI technology “handles that beautifully,” Capps said, adding that its principals are “excited about Europe” and the opportunities there.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer