Power to the Pet Owners

Cal Lai
CEO & Chairman of the Board, Ask.Vet

Education: Stanford University

AI Mission: Using technology to dramatically change the experience for the pet owner and, at the same time, improve pet health.

Ask Cal Lai to define artificial intelligence (AI) and he starts by qualifying that there is no AI without HI, human intelligence as he calls it. That's an important distinction from a man who has spent more than 30 years starting and growing companies that utilize web, mobile and voice technologies. In his companies, Lai uses his own HI to create disruptive new business models that plug into technology inflections as they relate to consumers' needs. His thesis has always been that every technology revolution is driven by a new idea for building value through consumer engagement and empowerment.

Lai is all about enabling his partners to create business workflows that take advantage of technology and put the consumer's needs – rather than the business's needs – at the center of the value proposition.

His perspective on AI is based on that customer-centric focus. Here it is in his words.

— Bowman Report

Lai's words: AI is not the enemy

I met up with a lot of hostile reaction when I started working in the veterinary space. Veterinarians were upset because they thought I was trying to replace them. I'm actually here to help veterinarians transition and adopt AI technology in a rational way.

I am trying to replace Dr. Google by doing triage through the MyPetDoc AI-driven chatbot and our network of veterinarians. The goal is to help pet owners get the right information to make the right decision about what to do in the moment. Pet owners come to us for assurance that they're making the right decision on behalf of their animal. We help them decide whether they need to take their pet into the veterinary practice now and, if so, what they can expect.

We do more than 1,500 consults a day with pet owners, and that number is growing at about 10 percent week over week. Almost 2,000 veterinary practices use our platform. Our veterinarians often tell us the most valuable thing we do is prepare their clients. When pet owners visit the practice with the right set of expectations, they can get past the notion that veterinarians want to run tests just to make money. They already know their pet is showing certain clinical signs and the veterinarian needs to run diagnostic tests to rule a condition in or out.

Alternatively, the veterinary industry tends to leave triage in the hands of the worst possible people: The pet owners themselves. The fact is, if people are standing in a veterinary practice with a sick pet, they've already triaged themselves in the door. About 3 million people every month go to Dr. Google to decide whether they should do one thing or another. Guess what, Doc Google doesn't give them any advice. It gives them a lot of information but without any synthesis. The pet owner is forced to read a bunch of stuff and figure out what to do on their own. That's just not a great consumer experience. AI can dramatically improve that experience and, at the same time, improve pet health.

How it works

AI and machine learning are contingent on the presence of good data. Without it, the machine has nothing to crunch on to see patterns it can learn from. The veterinary industry must pay attention to two critical points related to AI and machine learning: Validating what data is being used and understanding how the machine gets context from that data.

A robust AI engine drives Ask.Vet. We took 300,000 digital consultations between veterinarians and pet owners to create a contextual learning engine for pet patient triage. The bot can provide about 400 million various responses. Unlike a pure FAQ, our system learns from conversations. About 70 percent of consumers who talk to the AI-bot are satisfied with the answer; however, if the conversation needs to go further, we refer to one of our veterinarians for more discussion or to a local veterinarian for an in-person visit.

We're using AI to assemble third-party data, compare it against what we already know about a pet, and create what we call anticipatory guidance. AI uses the data to make predictions, such as when a dog may have an allergy outbreak or a cat may have sore joints. Then we can provide pet owners with an action plan. These new technologies can, if used appropriately, really benefit the practice and patient health. The integration of Internet of Things (IoT) smart devices provides the AI and our veterinarians with additional, pet-specific data to drive guidance and recommendations.

Who can you trust?

I think a lot of people on my side of the AI world are technologists without access to expertise in the industry they're serving, like the veterinary industry. They may not feel the duty to care for and manage data correctly. Still, I think any ethical violations that might come up are less likely to be intentional and more likely to result from carelessness.

That's why I think it's so important to work within the industry you're serving. For example, we have a network of 100 veterinarians, as well as a leadership group constantly looking at our algorithms and our system's insights outputs to make sure we're always delivering relevant information. We're also clear on how to stay within the rules of the veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

"AI has shifted the power from the hands of the veterinary clinic to the hands of the pet owner. So to me, the biggest risk with AI is that veterinarians will resist adopting it."

The threat...

In the first generation of digital, consumers consumed whatever businesses provided. Now in the second generation, consumers consume what they want and go to businesses that provide them with it. Think about what's in the consumer's best interest and provide what the consumer wants most. That's what will win the day over time. AI has shifted the power from the hands of the veterinary clinic to the hands of the pet owner. So to me, the biggest risk with AI is that veterinarians will resist adopting it.

I've heard a lot of veterinarians say, "I don't like this new technology. I just want things to go back to the way they were." That's not going to happen.

...And the solution

Rather than rejecting AI and saying I don't like it because it's a threat to my business and livelihood, the right way to view AI is to embrace it and use it appropriately. If the industry doesn't find ways to adopt AI, technologists who come from the Wild West will try to disrupt the industry. And they'll have some success doing it.

We need to work together to make sure the veterinary industry understands what these new technologies mean and what their limitations are. The key is getting veterinarians involved in using AI technologies to improve their medical outcomes and their practice.

For example, we're using AI to create a virtual front desk for veterinary practices. It provides expert knowledge in the form of a highly intelligent bot on the phone. The bot answers the phone and actually does triage with the pet owner, makes appointments, connects the pet owner to speak with a licensed veterinarian and so on.

On the IoT side, we're working with a couple companies on remote diagnostic tools that allow pet owners to get information about respiration, temperature and blood glucose. It's like a highly sophisticated form of Fitbit.

These show that we're entering a golden age of hybridization and integration of human intelligence and artificial Intelligence. When we get those two things working well together, there will be a huge opportunity to make improvements, both for pet owners, veterinary practices and pet health outcomes.

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