Interview: Branton Kenton-Dau of VortexDNA

In this week’s Just Behave Column, I had the opportunity to interview Branton Kenton-Dau from Vortex DNA. I’ve posted the complete transcript here for those that are interested:

Gord: 
So I think what we’ll do in this interview is cover off on a basic level what VortexDNA does, and then we’ll get into a little bit more about the potential I think it has for users.  So, it’s obviously an interesting idea using core values to try to determine intent. Maybe I’ll let you just walk through a little bit about how VortexDNA works, and why your approach is unique.

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
Yeah, thanks Gordon. I think that is a great place for us to start, and I think for us, it probably would go back to the human genome project itself, where we initiated as a society this project to map our human DNA.  And the great vision around that was that once we knew what our physical DNA was like we would be able to define the characteristics of your world and in particular help prevent  serious illnesses.  And one the outcomes of that project, was actually we found that there weren’t enough genes.  We found too few genes to map the 100,000 chemical pathways of our body; and that since then, where science is taken us is that it’s demonstrated that our physical DNA actually doesn’t determine who we are, but the whole science of epigenetics is saying actually it’s our environment, you know what we eat and particularly what we believe about ourselves which determines our propensity to be ill, to be healthy, to be successful or not.  So, actually our belief system is a major impact in determining who we are, and what is exciting about that is basically it represents a shift for us as a society from the very deterministic view of ourselves; that we are basically physical machines. Either we’re broken or not, depending on what our parents gave us, to the idea that we are actually beings that are creating our own lives with much more build out of what we  believe about ourselves at any moment and any time. That’s exciting because what we believe about ourselves can obviously be changed.  And basically what VortexDNA is is a technology that came out of the insight that the way we structure our beliefs is governed by the mathematics of complex systems.  What that means is that we know the structure our beliefs, and because of that we can then map out the structure of our intentional DNA, the intentions behind the world we create, and that’s basically the breakthrough, the technology. It provides a map of the way people organize who they are, literally who they are, through their belief systems.  And out of that, then comes the opportunity to create a better world for yourself whether that’s finding your best life partner or finding better research results or finding better car insurance rates because your particular belief system has a low propensity for accidents. It actually touches every part of your life, because we are actually mapping human characteristics.  The true genome, if you like, based upon the new science.

Gord: 
Okay, this is an interesting approach and undoubtedly a unique approach. I don’t know anyone else who is doing this. But you know, I approach this with a fair degree of cynicism saying, okay, obviously if you learn more about my belief system you can try to map that against the content of the internet. But how well does that actually work because my beliefs are the foundation, but on top of that, there are a lot of layers of intent for a lot of different things. How granular can your belief system be in disambiguating intent?  In some searches, I would see it working very well where it points to sites that you know resonates with my belief frame work, but in others where it is a much more practical “looking for information”, will trying to anticipate with my beliefs might indicate would be a good site, will that really be a good indicator of relevance?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
That’s a really good question Gordon; I think that the answer to that is that we don’t know yet.  I think that we are at very early stages of really what is the science of human intention, I mean, that’s really what’s it about.  And what I can share with you is that we validated the technology last year against Google search results, and that’s where we were able to show that we can improve Google’s page rank by up to 14% which would improve it by a 3% improvement in click rates.  And, what that seems to be saying to us is (it does help), and that’s across the board, people obviously searching for anything and everything that’s possible on the web, we were analyzing that data.  We haven’t been able break that down to say whether or not if you’re hunting for a job, we are able to provide better recommendations than when you are looking for your recipe for custard or something; we just don’t know yet enough about it.  One of the things is interesting is that when we had our expert review done on that data by a Rhode Island consultancy firm, they said that they the way that the technology works, because it’s iterative, i.e. it learns as it goes.  He said that we probably have no idea yet of how efficient the system is, we don’t know because we are dealing with a very small sample and as more and more users and more DNA is selected on links of the net, then there is no reason that it can’t actually be more effective than we’ve demonstrated, but we just don’t know yet.  It’s just early days yet.

Gord: 
You made the comment that this is iterative and it learns as it goes, and from going through your site I see you answer an initial questionnaire; and I’ll get to the whole privacy question, or the perception of privacy question is probably more accurate, I’ll get to that in a minute. But you answer the questionnaire that creates an ideological or a value-based profile of you which then gets mapped against different sites.  But then, at anytime you can go back and answer more surveys to further refine what that profile looks like.  How much of this refinement process or this learning process is incumbent on the user as opposed to transparent in the background just by VortexDNA watching what are you doing and how you are interacting with different sites?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
The answer is this system actually learns that every time you click on something, because every time you click on something, if you have downloaded the extension, the MyWebDNA extension, basically every time you click somewhere it’s a statement of your intentionality, so if other people have also clicked on it, it helps build up a map for that link of the intentionality that has been focused on the link.  So, we can feedback that intentionality into your own profile and therefore you don’t have to do anything.  Actually this year we will probably do away with the survey, so then you will won’t even need the survey to get started, that was just like a pre-heat process.  So, all we have to do is just surf as normal and you will be monitoring the state of your intentionality moment by moment with each click you make.

Gord: 
Okay, so let’s deal with that a little bit.  If you are monitoring my activity, in some ways this overlaps with what Google is doing with their web history and their search history, where they are tracking your usage and trying to learn more about you as an individual, theoretically, and then altering the results on the fly based on the personal signals it’s picking up. What you are doing is you are layering this outline of core values and what our belief systems are over and above that to say, “Okay well, not only are we watching what you are doing; we are trying to understand what’s important to you as an individual.”  Now, if we take that and we say, Okay I am in a business where at any given time for any given hour I’m working, I may be doing research, I might be writing the column on hate literature in North America, so I am going to be going to the sites of Neo-Nazi groups, trying to find information..that’s just part of my job.  How do you know that that doesn’t reflect my belief system, how do you know that this is just something that I happen to need to find information on right now?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
There are two parts to that.  One is that I feel we are very respectful of what Google and Yahoo, and their analysis in the whole semantic web push are doing in terms of trying to make the web more relevant to people and we do believe our technology is complementary to those approaches.  We don’t believe we are competing with any of those and, as you say, it’s overlay, it’s additive to those.  Having said that, we are really completely different to that because, it’s actually the structure, the pattern, the way your beliefs are organized that we are interested in, and what that means is that we actually turn your answers to your questionnaire, what you click on, into just a set of numbers.  There are seven numbers that correspond to different aspects of that pattern of organization, that makes up your intentionality.  And so, really when you are going around, what we are doing is as you click on something, we will compare your number, it might be 7632416 say, with the numbers that are held against that link.  So, what we are doing is we are comparing numbers, we don’t know whether you’ve gone to a Nazi site or whether you are looking for apple pie recipes. We have absolutely no idea and maintain no record of where you’ve been, in all those sites. So when your genome is updated, because you’ve gone to this site,  we might update your genome because you’ve been to that site to change one of your digits in one way, by one point or so, then that digit could be changed from any site you ;  the news or Yahoo! or whatever.  So, what makes us really truly unique with this approach, which we think is really important, is that we absolutely protect your privacy because we do not track your searches in any shape or form because we are just adding or subtracting numbers from that seven digit identifier.  So it makes no difference to us, and I think that’s a really powerful thing, because you know there is concern with people for what information people hold on them and all we hold is a seven digit number, and you could be anywhere, it could have been Walt Disney Movies, it could have been finding out about the players in your favorite football team, it makes no difference to us.  So we can’t tell even if a law enforcement agencies came to us, and asked to us, “hey, where has Gord been”, we would have no idea, we could not tell them.

Gord: 
So what you do is in your identification of all the sites, you look at the sites and you assign each of those a profile and then your profile is altered on the fly based on the profiles you are matching up with against your content then, right?

Branton Kenton-Dau:  That’s correct and they’re all number, those profiles are numbers so…

Gordon: 
Right.  So there is no history retained, it’s just a constantly updated value which in turn, with every time you go out, is compared against all the values of the sites that come up in a search engine for instance, and the best possible matches are highlighted in the search results then.

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
Thank you, that’s absolutely perfect.

Gord: 
That’s interesting.  And now, obviously, that’s a totally different approach and one that should put some fears to rest on the privacy side, but I’ve got to tell you when I checked out VortexDNA and went through the process of the download, the whole idea of filling out a  questionnaire identifying my belief system, it gave me cause for concern. It was funny because as far as identifying me as an individual, the demographic information I fill out here and there across the web is potentially much more of a cause for concern for my privacy, because there is identifiable information in there.  I don’t usually have a second thought about but something about putting my beliefs down and sharing them with somebody else was very hard for me to do. Are you finding..and you said that you are probably going to drop the questionnaire…but are you finding that as a sticking point for people signing up for VortexDNA?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
I think some people never think about it.  We get up in the morning, brush our teeth and go to work and make our daily bread.  Sometimes we don’t have time to think at all, “why am I here?”, and when you ask the question, “what’s your purpose in life?” Well that’s a pretty profound question.  What we found is that some people don’t fill in (the questionnaire) correctly or too quickly or they just answer anything, they don’t really think about it deeply and therefore, because noise goes in, they just get noise out.  That’s where over the course of last year we actually developed what we call this idealized genome. We can just infer your genome by what you click on.  We think that’s a much better way, and we can do that for instance, by just playing a game.  We can show some images, pick some of your favorites, we can infer your genome that way.  So, lot’s of more, less mentally taxing and more fun ways that we can get you started in creating your genome, your profile, which we think would work a lot better.

Gord: 
Well, you mentioned this whole approach may limit your potential market just because a lot of people haven’t thought about what their core values are or what their beliefs are, so the whole appeal of VortexDNA might be lost on them.  Unless you are a fan of Stephen Covey or you’ve read Built to Last, or Good to Great, you may not get it.  What are your thoughts about that?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
I think you are right, and I think that the technology is broad enough, so it can serve anyone, whatever their focus is in life, and that it’s our responsibility to make sure that it’s that easy to use. We like to be able to do it (transparently), say, if you want to play Pacman, this way you are building up your profiles, and we can enable you to do that.  And we should be able to that shortly.  At the same time, I think one of the really key things about the technology, and certainly from my point of view of what, you know, gets me up in morning is the fact that I think it really is empowering for people to understand that the lives that they create, they literally do create it, it’s not given to them. Who you are is not determined by your upbringing, or your life experiences, or by the genes your parents gave you; but it is actually created by you moment by moment.  And, it’s my hope that the technology would help. It’s really a very American thing, in the sense that there is all about human freedom ultimately, and it gives people more freedom as they realize, “well, I am the creator of my life and if I am going to keep stuck in this rut then it is what I believe about myself that is keeping me there.”  That’s what I find exciting about the technology, so I hope that may dawn on some people faster than others and that’s okay, there is no problem with that.  But I believe the technology has the ability to make a contribution to human freedom ultimately.

Gord: 
So, you are climbing up Maslow’s hierarchy to the top level?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
Yes, I absolutely believe that and I think that  we as human beings are always trying to really understand our true ability to create reality, and that our intentionality is, if you like, part of ourselves that we probably put less effort into training than anything else.  We spend a lot of time on the fitness machines or jogging to keep our bodies in shape, but we haven’t spent a lot of time in what actually seems to be a real key factor in determining the success of our life, which is our intentionality; and so I am hoping the technology will help focus us on that.

Gord: 
We’ve talked about some pretty lofty ideals for a technology here. About  helping people with self-actualization, and become better people, and become more aware of both what’s important to them internally and externally.  All of which is great for any fans of Collins or Covey who might be reading this or listening to this. We are getting to the hedgehog concept here; you are obviously passionate about this, you’ve got something different that you can be unique in, possibly best in the world at.  Now, comes the money question. How does this drive your economic engine? What’s the business model for VortexDNA, and how do you see that playing out over the 2 years to 3 years?

Branton Kenton-Dau
We have given a lot of thought about that and made a lot of mistakes as well and I think U-turns on it.  But basically, the company I represent, we basically have a technology which we issue licenses to other organizations and participate with them as strategic partners. For instance, in rolling out the technology.  And there are two kind of key parts for that, two key aspects of the technology, one is that the technology can be used by any ecommerce sites, whether that’s an e-tail or social site, in order to provide better recommendations, using their algorithms.  So, that’s a pure B2B solution, and we have the company incorporated in United States at the moment in order to do that. We would be interested in anyone who would like to partner with us to roll that out.  And then, the other side is that we feel we can create a better web by harnessing the power of mass collaboration, just like Wikipedia, to map the genome of the web and out of that, will come better search engines, will come a better ability to find people like you anywhere you are, enhance your blog, pretty much a holistic upgrade if you like, of the web itself. And that, we believe, like search engines themselves, is a pure advertising based free service to users.  So, we see there is an application there and in fact within next 30 days, we will be launching the Web Genome Project with its own website, and that would be an advertising based play again.  We believe that that has potential in every country in the world and we are open to issue licenses to partners that would like to take up the opportunity.

Gord: 
This territory has been somewhat explored in the past, you know the one example I am thinking of with the Music Genome Project where Pandora tried to use your past songs you like to recommend more songs you might like.  So, is this somewhat similar to that except obviously a much broader scope. Anything that could be on the web, right?
Branton Kenton-Dau:  That’s correct, I guess the difference would be that what’s great about the Web Genome Project is that while you sleep, millions of other people will be clicking on things that will make the web better for you in the morning.

Gord: 
Right.

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
That’s what’s so cool about mass collaboration. You do your clicking, you click on whatever, a thousand links in your day, but while you are sleeping well there are millions of links that have been updated and have better DNA against them, so that you can find what you want better when you wake up in the morning, and that’s really exciting.
Gord:  It’s definitely one of those big idea things.

Branton Kenton-Dau
Yes.

Gord
To flip this on its side, as a community we are all clicking away, and this DNA matching is going, so it’s making the web a better place, as you say, collaboratively, but on the flip side of that, once you’ve identified or a profile has been built that’s been refined over time based on the sites you found interesting or you’ve spent time with.  That’s a unique identifier that says something about you so, theoretically, down the road, if somebody comes to a site, if the owner of that site can identify what’s important to that person based on the profile, it could on the fly serve up content matching those beliefs, is that another possible application for this?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
Thank you, that’s what I was attempting to describe in the first application, that’s the B2B solution.   So an e-tailer or search engine can now take out a license to run the application, the user would visit the site, you won’t see anything different through your Google search or through your Amazon book recommendations, but that’s all being added to the recommendation engine behind, so you are just going to say “hey, for some reason, I just feel that I am getting better recommendations now”.  So, it’s our way of making the web more efficient and that technology is available right now. We’ve got three installations in United States currently progressing, and that’s the other, that’s the business-to-business model, and we believe that has applications around the world as well.

Gord: 
So, for any business applications the big question is critical mass, how many people will be downloading the plug in and using it?  This is fairly new, how long has the Firefox plug-in been available?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
About a year now.

Gord: 
What has the adoption been like to this point?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
At this point, it’s been slow because what we’ve actually done is that plug-in was actually built initially to validate the technology.  That’s what we had to do last year, and then we spent the rest of last year really building enterprise-grade technology that enabled to be used by clients. So we really start the year, as I said, the next 30 days will see the Web Genome Project being launched, so we are only just at the start of the technology coming online.

Gordon: 
Are there any plans to accelerate the adoption either through partnerships or bundling or other ways to actually get people to download the plug in and start using it?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
There are, I mean for each of the people, partners, e-tailors that would like to use the technology, we’ll be producing custom versions with extensions for their users, so that, they will encourage their uses to download the extension, because that will help map the DNA of their links quicker.  So, that will speed the application and we have also got plans to provide custom versions of the extension also to people of different social networks, so that they can enhance the experience within social networks as well.  And then, also if you’re logged in to any service, if you have an account with Amazon or some other e-tailer, you actually don’t need to use the plug in because when you login they already know who you are, so you already will be able to get better recommendations from that person without using the plug-in at all. You won’t see it. It would be completely seamless and invisible to you, and you just get a better web experience.

Gord: 
So, if you log into Amazon for instance, I guess it just keeps the profile so that profile would not be portable then.  It would stay with Amazon, and I think to get to the broader context of what you are talking about, the portability of that profile, the fact that it goes with you from site to site, would be an important part of that, right?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
That’s why we see the extension would be great if people did use it or it just became embedded in web browsers generally.  Because it will give you a more universal better experience. 

Gord: 
Okay so looking forward, you’ve done a lot of development on the backend to build the infrastructure, and the theory is there.  Now, it’s just a matter of having it proven out in real world situations, right?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
That’s exactly what we are about to see. That’s why these installations are taking place at the moment in the United States to validate that, and we are getting started with the Web Genome Project, it is all about delivery this year.

Gord: 
Well, it’s fascinating, like I said it’s one of those big idea things that is fascinating to contemplate.  Is there anything else you wanted to add before we wrapped up the interview?

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
We’ve worked on this  pretty much, well, it’s been an 8-year project, so it’s not been a fast thing for us, but I just thought I might share  a couple of books that have been really important to me which you probably know about anyway. One of them that I just finished reading is The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart who is also the author of The Field. What is nice about that is she just documents all the rigorous science that is basically saying that we are shifting our paradigm, to understand we are more like any energy fields, if you like, than physical bodies, that’s the definition of us.  And just the science has come out of Stanford and other places that validates that, is just awe inspiring.  And then, the other one is The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, which gives that whole transition process from us believing we are physical genes to the whole science of extra genetics, if it’s actually our environment including our beliefs which is a key factor in determining who we are; and I just wanted to share those because I found those two books very inspiring.  They happened after the fact. We didn’t build the technologies because we read the books, but with the books now, we say “oh yeah, that’s why our technology works.

Gord: 
Well, it’s interesting you mentioned that because it seems like anytime I ‘m talking to people about really interesting things there has been this almost renaissance of understanding about what makes us as humans tick, starting in areas like psychology, neurology, and evolutionary psychology and a whole bunch of different areas.  And it all started to happen in the early 90’s, and just for the last 10 years to 15 years, it seems like so many paradigms have shifted.  We’re just looking at things in a whole new way and I agree with you, it’s very inspiring and exciting to know that everything seems to be in such flux right now.

Branton Kenton-Dau: 
I absolutely agree with that, and that’s been our sense as well.  It’s just such a privilege to be part of that process.  I know your comments and what you are doing is aligned with that as well.  You know, we are all doing it, but when we are creating together, we are creating something which is new and exciting, I think, and we all have our parts to play in it.  I find it a privilege to participate in this, really, it’s human movement in taking us forward at such a rapid pace as well, so we are now absolutely aligned with what you were saying there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s