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The Man Behind the Machine

on Nov 17 2015
Chief Storyteller at Wefunder. Mother of three beautiful guinea pigs.

Inside the brain of Mashgin’s founder and CEO

Abhinai Srivastava has worked at big name companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft, and Facebook. But two years ago he left those empires to build his own: Mashgin. They’re developing computer vision so advanced, he anticipates the next Industrial Revolution.

(No time to read? Scroll down and check out the video or the podcast.)

Invention by Inspiration

The Mashgin office lies tucked away on an unassuming street in Palo Alto. Inside, you will find inspirational posters taped to the walls. On a white A2 sheet, hidden amidst quotes from tech legends like Steve Jobs and thought leaders like Sam Altman, is a slice of wisdom from Hannibal Barca, a Carthaginian general who gave Rome a run for their money during second century BCE.

It reads: “We will find a way. Or make one.”

This is what Abhinai Srivastava, CEO and founder of Mashgin, is about.

Mashgin is developing computer vision so advanced, Srivastava is anticipating to trigger something akin to the next Industrial Revolution. Like many ambitious startups, Mashgin doesn’t dream of anything less than changing the world.

The home base of these world changers is an office within an office, a space no bigger than a large walk-in closet or a master bathroom. Four men, four desktop computers, a shared bathroom down the hall, and desks littered with empty diet pepsi bottles and machine parts that probably cost hundreds of dollars. This is where the Srivastava wages war against his personal Rome. It’s reminiscent of the Steve Jobs garage — an ordinary place housing an extraordinary endeavor.

In one corner, you’ll see the brain baby of two years of coding and midnight breakthroughs. It’s the Mashgin self check-out kiosk. It’s sleek, silver, and smaller than you’d imagine it to be.

“We are building this technology that is completely based on computer vision. And we’re putting it first in cafeterias,” Srivastava says. “You come in with your tray, you put your tray in the kiosk and it can immediately tell you what it is. You swipe and you go, in less than five seconds.”

The self-checkout kiosk is Mashgin’s pilot project, equipped with cameras and a cloud-based software that can recognize anything you put in front of it in less than a second — doesn’t matter if you’re in San Francisco or Tokyo.

In their user tests, the Mashgin kiosk cut checkout drastically from thirty seconds to two seconds.

And they’ve just started.

Looking into the Future

Automated check-out doesn’t sound sexy, but neither did the cotton gin in 1794 or the sewing machine in 1846. But they’re inventions that got things done, upheaved how they got done, and changed who could do those things and who no longer had to.

To look at the Mashgin kiosk and only see a fast and convenient consumer solution is to miss the real wow factor hiding beneath its chrome exterior.

This sweet little machine is equipped with extraordinary computer vision. It reacts by sight, as SIRI or Cortana react to your voice. It is, essentially, artificial intelligence.

And its uses go far and beyond slicing 90% off check-out time. According to Srivastava, the uses for computer vision run infinitely. Take the example of airport security.

“There’s a person just literally looking at your baggage for all the suspicious looking items. That’s slow, that’s why there are lines and people miss their planes,” said Srivastava. “With this technology, even that can be automated, so why not?”

To Lead the Pack

Srivastava is a softspoken man. An introvert who’d rather bury himself in code than stand on a stage. He’s hardly the portrait of a mad computer scientist or a flamboyant Silicon Valley genius.

He spends his time hunched over his computer in a t-shirt and cargo shorts, working viciously on a vision of the future so vivid and passionate, he looks to ancient generals for motivation.

Srivastava isn’t the only founder in Silicon Valley who’s convinced his startup is going to revolutionize the world, but his vision is easily one of the more fathomable ones.

It’s so believable, we have movies about it: highly intelligent robots taking over the world and subjugating their former human masters. In reality, the narrative takes a less fatalistic, but just as frightening twist.

Machines are going to take jobs from the people who need it most. In Mashgin’s case, goodbye cashiers.

The people who have the most to lose often react in fear and anger to this vision of future that is so out of their control and seems,for better or worse, inevitable. Who can blame them? It’s scary to imagine your livelihood being stripped away to make room for a shiny, smart machine.

Srivastava contemplates this duality often, of inventing a machine so useful yet so threatening to a particular group of people. He’s reached one major conclusion.

“Let’s not confuse jobs with human happiness,” he says. “I believe happiness is more important.”

According to Srivastava, people who work in vision based jobs — which rely solely on a human’s ability to see and recognize objects — are jobs that no human would willingly perform unless desperate. Factory assembly, for instance, or cashiers at grocery stores.

“I believe that another level of civilization upgrade would happen if only computers could do this job. If computers could completely take over the place where vision is necessary,” Srivastava says. “I think that’s exactly what Mashgin tries to do.”

Forcing people to take on these jobs, with their redundancy and low-skills, is “inhuman” Srivastava says. If those same people could do something else, they would.

“The society I envision will not have humans forced to do menial jobs,” Srivastava says. “Ultimately I cannot imagine any person who could be happy doing the jobs we are forcing people to do.”

And that’s what Srivastava is betting on, that those misplaced will find something new, better, and more fulfilling.

“We have made an economy out of it. Once we break that economic pattern, the government will not have an option but to pay people directly for this basic income. Ultimately I don’t see this as a job skill thing but a human freedom thing.”

Srivastava’s vision is certainly idealistic, if not utopian. But he plans to shut down the skeptics not with words but with the undeniable customer experience his machines will provide, today in checkout and later, in everything else.

“People will always be skeptics, that’s precisely why I talk about trust,” Srivastava says. “When they use it, if we can build that trust with them, that would be a better meter of success.”

Those who stalk the status quo seldom make the history books. Srivastava may sound overly ambitious, but most game changers do.

It’s hard to say whether the future is going to play out exactly as Srivastava envisions. But one thing is certain: a quiet revolution is taking place where machines will become smarter and faster, and Mashgin is going to lead the pack.

Are you a Mashgin investor? Check out your investor-only update.

Liked by James Brown