Q&A with SFU alumnus and digital cupid, Justin Long


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you’re still swiping left and right on Tinder, looking for a special someone to see this Valentine’s day, have no fear. SFU alumnus Justin Long has developed the artificial intelligence (AI) to help you find your dream partner.

Having been consistently identified as one of the leading cities for the technology and innovation, Vancouver has steadily been making its mark on the digital age and all it entails. Innovators and entrepreneurs now comprise an industry worth over $23.5 billion in British Columbia — and much of that industry resides in Metro Vancouver.  

One of those innovators includes Long, who launched an artificial intelligence app, warmly named Bernie, this past summer. Bernie works by being applied to a dating app, registering the characteristics a user seems most interested in, and rendering matching options that would most likely appeal to them.

Though Long’s SFU degree is in general studies, he’s long had an interest in technology and software development. The Peak sat down with Long to talk about Bernie and his mission to get more singles swiping right.

Peak: What is Bernie?

Justin Long: Bernie is the world’s first artificial intelligence designed to help people start dating. Bernie uses deep learning to understand the type of [person] someone finds attractive, and then seeks them out on dating apps. Not only does he pull together a deeper understanding of who makes you “tick,” but he even starts the conversation to ensure mutual interest.

P: What does Bernie do when applied to a dating app?

JL: Bernie essentially acts as a filter, where he takes out all of the legwork and nuisances involved in online dating. After installing Bernie, you’ll spend some time swiping on Tinder with him so that he can be trained on who you find attractive and who you, well, don’t. From there, Bernie starts a conversation with the profiles that you’ve matched with and determines if they’re interested in continuing the conversation. If they are, Bernie then allows you to take over.

“I was determined to get people away from their phones and back to real love” – Justin Long

P: Could you describe Bernie’s target user?

JL: Anyone who’s busy, or feels like they don’t have an endless amount of time [for] swiping through profiles and people that you have no interest in. He especially works for people with busy schedules, and who are interested in enjoying a more genuine experience than what online dating sites currently offer.

P: How did you come up with the idea for Bernie?

JL: First, very few people know that the inspiration for Bernie comes from Bernd Dittrich, an old friend and dorm-mate from SFU residence. Bernd was at the height of his SFU football career when we lost him to an unfortunate heart condition in 2009. It was unusually fitting that his heart was too big; I watched his relationship with his girlfriend turn into a really special connection, and he was loved by anyone who knew him.

Fast forward to 2014 when I was sitting in a bar watching a trending app called Tinder begin to consume my friends. I became frustrated with how everyone was sucked into their phones. I joked “I can automate Tinder” to the hysterical and unbelieving faces of my friends. Two months later I had a working prototype. Once I left my job doing research and development for a Vancouver software company, I turned the prototype into something — a real usable app. I was determined to get people away from their phones and back to real love, and I thought Bernie was a fitting name.

P: How did you first get involved with software/tech?

JL: When I was three years old my dad taught me how to program this MS-DOS app that was a simulation of traffic lights. Unfortunately, much of that skill was replaced by a superb ability to dismantle computers into unusable pieces until I was 15, when my grandmother gave me a copy of Macromedia Dreamweaver. At 16, I had my first paying web design client and ever since I’ve been learning to code on my own.

P: Are there any plans for the future of Bernie that you can tell us about?

JL: Everything that Bernie is learning from dating is proving to be extremely valuable. Bernie is gaining cognitive abilities, being able to read personality traits and put photos into context. We’re actively looking at applying his brains to the advertising world, and are currently working with undisclosed universities and companies to research how far we can take him.

P: Was there any point during Bernie’s development at which you thought the AI wouldn’t work? Why or why not?

JL: In the very early stages we released Bernie to a small group of testers. One of them came to me in person and said, “Justin, look at what Bernie is doing. . .” Well, Bernie was relentlessly messaging people and making very obvious incompatible choices. That’s when we made an emergency effort to become experts in deep learning, which has paid off ever since.

P: What would your advice be for students hoping to get into AI development?

JL: When Google built FaceNet, its research team used 250 million photos to achieve 99.67% accuracy. Students rarely ever have access to so much data, and you don’t need it. There are tricks to bootstrapping tiny datasets you need to get started and to training AI with very little information. Learn those tricks and make your life easier!

P: Could you tell us a bit about how you got together with your girlfriend?

JL: That’s a great story. I initially met her while I was attending SFU back around 2010. We lived near each other and had a bunch of mutual friends, so we’d always talk and flirt when we ran into one another, but nothing ever happened, which was something I regretted because after I graduated we went our separate ways. . . Until six years later.

Shortly after I created Bernie, I was testing the app and saw her profile show up on my account. I took over the conversation before Bernie said anything and asked her out on a date the next day. I’m happy to say that we’ve been dating ever since and we’re moving in together at the end of this month. I guess I’m a living example of how Bernie can be successful.