The Startup Bridging Theology and Technology – Analytics India Magazine

Posted By on August 27, 2022

While attending a conference at Oxford, Stephen Smith heard about the death of an acquaintance, Steven, whose interview happened to be stored in his computer. Though Stephen wasnt the interviewer and had no idea what the interview was all about, he put a hologram up and shot a question to the dead the very day he died.

Steven, what do you want your legacy to be, he asked. Life has its ups and downs. I want young people to know that it doesnt matter if life treats you well or not. Just stick with it, because life is worth living. That was the reply he got!

Thats when Stephen realized he wanted more from this. He set up an account through StoryFile right at the conference and allowed attendees to interact with the dead. Only the attendees had no idea that Steven had died 12 hours ago. Thats when I realized this was going to be a game-changing technology.

StoryFile a revolutionary way of storytelling

StoryFile, is an AI-powered video platform that is cloud-based and automatic, bringing the power of conversational video into the limelight. Stephen Smith, CEO and co-founder of StoryFile, was the brain behind this innovation. You may recall him as the man who made his mother, the late Marina Smith MBE, adopt this technology and speak at her own funeral.

In an exclusive chat with Analytics India Magazine, Stephen spoke about his Indian roots, among other things. My mother, Marina Smith, was born in Kolkata to an Indian man. I met my grandfather last when I was just five years old and learned only this year that my grandparents were divorced during World War II. My grandma brought my mother and aunt to England for their education.

Now 55, Stephen recalls that his grandfather suffered a stroke during his visit to England. I was five when I went to see him at the hospital. I remember thinking how it had never occurred to me that my grandfather was Indian. So 40 years went by before I decided to do a DNA test. I am 20% Indian! For years, my mom hadnt spoken much about this.

From theology to technology

Based in LA, StoryFile was launched in 2017. It allowed people to create videos that could be replayed to viewers using the power of AI. Technology is not about technology, its about human experience. The words kept echoing for long, while Stephen sat in his California office, calmly answering my questions.

Stephen Smith, CEO, StoryFile

Stephen says that as a CEO, his main focus is on the business of his fast-growing startup. The company faces complex issues related to fundraising, audit security, and recruitment strategies. He says these things necessarily come first, as without them, there isnt a business. Im not a technologist. My background is in theology and philosophy. So I want to be the theologian running a tech company.

Giving us a glimpse into the birth of StoryFile, Stephen shares his story that dates back to the 90s, when he found himself working on a new media project to film the Holocaust survivors using VCR cameras. He felt it was an advantage to have a camera that could interview thousands of people.

Stephen didnt think that he would end up running a technology company. He came to California in 2009 to run a foundation created by ace filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who conducted 55,000 interviews with the Holocaust survivors, making it the worlds largest oral history archive to ever exist. Stephen now serves as the executive director emeritus of USC Shoah Foundation.

In order to be successful in getting the message out, I had to be successful with technology. I ran that organisation for 12 years and essentially built a large media distribution platform for students, teachers, and universities, to get access to a giant database of content. And thats how I ended up eventually building a media technology company.

Stephen interviewed the survivors of the Holocaust, mainly to know why they tell their stories using the most recent media available. In 1945, I observed that they were telling their story by writing down on bits of paper and using sound audio recordings. Then via films and documentaries and ultimately using cameras that were becoming increasingly accessible.

He goes on to talk about two significant figures with completely different life experiences but one thing in common they understood the importance of documenting a historic event with the help of technology, in the most humane way possible.

One was Armin T. Wegner, a journalist and writer who took photographs of the Armenian Genocide in 1970. He used these images to convey the truth of his situation. Second, was Michael Hagopian, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, who had filmed people surviving the Armenian Genocide.

The first person that Hagopian had interviewed was Armin Wegner. Fortunately, the story of that historical event can only be told because of those two men and their embrace of technology and storytelling. So what this tells me is that technology is about human experience, and how it can enhance and enable us to be more humane.

Ethical concerns around AI

Stephens interest lies in VR and the immersiveness of the XR, leveraging technologies between AI and visualisation. His team deploys tech as an opportunity for an individual to tell a story, without being altered by AI. He says, AI is there to access what exists and give you the best answers to a question and not recreate the lesson.

He thinks that the only way out is to make AI more human. So my question is, how can we use AI to enhance the human experience over the next few years? Metaverse can be anything and all the things we want it to be. He also believes that humans need to dig into the economics of AI, to find the balance between the trivialization of human experience and deploy the same for enhancement.

Star Trek actor William Shatner at the StoryFile studio

There needs to be a different balance between gaming, entertainment, and solving world problems. It does not have to all be philanthropic. But I would love to see that shift.

The platform also caters to agencies and interviewees, with no data taken by the company or anyone associated with it. What we have is a very high bar around privacy. This is what encourages people to talk authentically about their lives.

Smith believes that his platform is a well-curated version of ourselves that is narrowly defined. With StoryFile, one can curate an authentic version of oneself. He says its almost like being in a journal or a diary. If you look at social media channels, one cannot find authentic versions of themself.

StoryFile provides a free, ad-free version of the software, where anyone can answer at least 30 questions about themselves along with a free profile. Theres no adverts on storytelling nor will ever be. We believe this is about peoples sacred space to tell their story in their own words. The key thing is, its your story, it belongs to you and its safe with us.

I didnt find it difficult to talk to my mother

When Stephens mother Mrs Smith passed away in Nottingham, England, she was still able to share stories and hardships with her family in her posthumous appearance. Stephen says that he wanted to get to know her story rather than ask.

I was not recording the tapes because I thought she was going to die. I taped her because she was alive. I wasnt planning on using them (the tapes) at the funeral. But when she passed away, it just seemed obvious to me that I would ask those questions at the funeral. I didnt find it difficult. I found it really easy to talk to her.

Stephen has authored several books and has two titles coming this year, namely, The Trajectory of Memory and Holocaust XR.

Stephens innovation to capture peoples legacy has changed things around death. With the help of AI and holographic technology, people are able to capture memories that they thought were long gone. It is indeed impossible to spend time with the departed that would mess with Gods plans but StoryFiles gives us a tiny shot at having that one last talk.

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The Startup Bridging Theology and Technology - Analytics India Magazine

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