Can technology help us become better at being human? Joshua Feast, CEO of Cogito, is working to answer that question

By Tina Irgang

Joshua Feast

Joshua Feast

Everyone has had a moment where they wish they could read someone’s mind. That ability still belongs firmly in the realm of science fiction, but CEO Joshua Feast and his company Cogito have developed a technology that, at the very least, can make us better at reading other humans’ emotions.

“We’re bringing technology into a field that we don’t think of technology as helping with,” says Feast. “Technology can help us with our humanity.”

Earlier in his career, Feast worked for several organizations in the human services field, which meant spending a lot of time around social workers. “I just saw a few things, one being what happens to a family when you’re not at your best self, shall we say,” says Feast. “And then also, if you’re on the front lines and dealing with human problems as your job, it’s very challenging.” The average tenure for a front-line social worker was three to five years, he recalls.

Feast holds a bachelor’s degree in technology from Massey University in New Zealand, his native country. He later moved to the U.S., where he acquired an MBA from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. During his time at MIT, Feast “was lucky enough to brush up against a stream of research on how we can turn human behavior into data,” he says. “The eureka moment was that if you can do that, then you can start using technology to help us be our best self.”

Ripe for the times

When Feast launched Cogito in 2007, the first order of business was trying to understand and quantify behavior, so the technology could become better at predicting future behavior. “We needed to look for places where the behaviors were more obvious,” he says. “So we actually started the company looking at how individuals will exhibit — through their behavior — information about having clinical or psychological distress. One of the first things we looked at was how the way you speak may reveal that you are experiencing major depression.”

It was the right idea for its time. Cogito’s early years coincided with increasing concern among government agencies about psychological distress exhibited by soldiers who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The government started a program to come up with some technology-driven solutions under something called DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], which is the high-tech funding arm of the Department of Defense,” says Feast. The funding from DARPA helped Cogito further develop its technology, which the company initially rolled out in the healthcare field.

“We were helping create better rapport and better awareness of social signals between nurses, doctors and patients,” says Feast. “That was very successful, but the technology at that point was very complicated for the user, and you had to have quite a bit of education to take advantage of it.”

Cogito

Cogito’s software prompts customer-service reps with alerts about their own and their customers’ behavior.

After a few more years, Cogito had simplified its technology significantly, and started to think about how it could have a broader impact. The company began to develop an application to bring its software to customer-service interactions.

Improving conversations

“There are half a billion customer-service phone calls in the U.S. in a day, and many of us are frustrated about them as a consumer,” says Feast. “So we thought we could help organizations, help the frontline employees, and for those of us who are consumers, it would mean much more pleasant conversations.”

The broad potential of this application soon attracted more investors. In November 2016, Cogito raised a $15 million Series B round, led by Boston-based venture capital firm OpenView. That’s on top of another $6.5 million the company had raised just before, according to the Boston Business Journal.

“One of the challenges for organizations is [knowing] how well the conversations are going with their customers,” says Feast. “So the technology looks at how people are interacting with each other, and uses that to analyze how well the conversation is going.”

Looking at factors such as tone, voice and word choices for both participants in the conversation, Cogito’s technology generates alerts that let the customer service rep know things like “You’re talking a lot” or “You’re interrupting” or “The customer may be emotional and needs empathy.”

Keeping track of troubled patients

However, this more broad-based application doesn’t mean Cogito has abandoned its roots in healthcare. The company is currently involved in three clinical trials — with Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Cogito

The Cogito team at the company’s Boston office

The trials involve a mobile app Cogito has developed that helps track the behaviors of patients with mental health issues.

“The phone will help an individual share important information that relates to life health,” says Feast. “Are you getting out and about? Are you socializing? What’s your mood? It measures movement patterns around socialization. We have offered voice diaries, so you can choose to leave a diary.”

In the field of mental health, Feast notes, ongoing patient evaluations are often based on surveys that ask questions like, “How have you been feeling the last two weeks?”

The problem is that “you tend to answer based on how you’re feeling now, so the key is to get information over a longer timeframe,” says Feast. “The app gives that data, and the clinicians have reported it helps with conversations like, ‘Oh, what happened here?’ … We’ve had some very important test cases, like at the VA, there have been individuals who suddenly become homeless that would otherwise have been unidentified.”

So what is the next frontier for Cogito? “A lot of technology companies are trying to create a separate intelligence that you can ask questions of,” says Feast. “I ask myself, who’s helping us be our best self? Who’s thinking about us as humans? … There are a lot of conversations in our lives, outside the customer-service area, and we’d like to find a way to help people have those conversations too.”

A Neat Idea highlights unconventional policies, perks, products or services that companies are offering. To be considered for a Neat Idea, email tina@smartceo.com.