I decided to go ahead and start a company. I was planning on doing this eventually after I finish my PhD, but it seems like a good idea just to get the ball rolling now. The plan is to commercialize my AI research.
Back in 2004 and 2005 I just assumed that my research would always be open source. I released my master's thesis implementation as the open source project Verve. I posted on this blog in detail about every idea and simulation result. Monetizing this work didn't appeal to me; I was just happy to be able to work on something as grandiose as general AI.
I slowly came to realize that after graduation, I won't be able to sustain my progress without getting a day job. I really want to continue this research full-time, and I really do not want to divide my attention in order to make an income. So what are my options?
I worked on the Netflix Prize for a while (and still do periodically)... a quick $1,000,000 would be a great source of initial funding. (My best result so far is 0.5% better than Netflix's own algorithm, but I need to reach 10% for the win.) Going for such a big prize is a lot of fun, but I'm not betting on it. I still need something a little more predictable.
When the iPhone SDK was announced, I didn't really consider iPhone app development. It seemed like a lot of work and a big distraction from research. But when the iPhone App Store was launched, I started watching the list of top paid apps. Many of them are very simple but seem to sell pretty well. I started thinking more seriously about starting an LLC and building a few simple apps. It would be a good way to get my feet wet in the free market (learning what people want, as Paul Graham would say), plus I would learn the iPhone SDK and be able to use it for other projects. That's not to mention the psychological benefits of making things more concrete... feeling part of the real world and less like a graduate student.
So in October I decided to pull the trigger and formed Brainpower Labs LLC. Our first product, iBonsai, is definitely not AI-related, but it has been a good first app for me to learn the iPhone SDK, OpenGL ES, and the iPhone's performance limitations. (The thing is very impressive for a handheld device, by the way.) It's a little distracting right now switching between AI research and iPhone app development, but I'm hoping the two efforts converge at some point. I'm thinking our next app will be based around some simple AI techniques.
I'm really glad to have started the company now rather than after graduation. Besides having a new source of income (fingers crossed) to ease the transition out of grad school, I now have an immediate outlet for turning research ideas into real applications. As my core intelligence architecture progresses (which I've dubbed the Sapience Engine), I'll be able to use it to produce increasingly interesting applications, which could be iPhone apps, desktop computer software, console video games, or robotics applications.