Clarence Hu is founder at Hotpot, a company that uses artificial intelligence to generate and edit images using simple text commands. This tech allows anyone to program a machine to generate an image using nothing but their imagination. We recently talked to Hu about AI in the art world, how people use this tech, and his mission to empower people who have ideas.
PETER HULL (NBCLX): The name Hotpot — is this a reference to lunch, the Chinese hotpot?
CLARENCE HU: Yeah, you know. So actually, the reasoning behind choosing Hotpot is you have all the ingredients prepared — you go to the restaurant, you sit down and you can mix and match all these prepared ingredients and have a customized, delicious professional meal within a few minutes. The water is already boiling or the broth’s already boiling, everything's pre-sliced for you, you just order. The important thing is you customize it to your taste, but it's still delicious and it's still effectively professional. And that's the motivation behind it. We want to help people, empower people to essentially assemble, create graphics, create images in a very professional way using our premade software.
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HULL: Tell me in your words why you believe AI is good for humanity.
CLARENCE HU: That is a question that's constantly asked today. I think it is extremely exciting because a lot of human jobs, and the creative process as well, is full of repetition and tedium. If you think about your daily activities at your job there's probably a good chunk of that time spent on just repetitive, mundane tasks. And we fundamentally see AI as an opportunity to automate those mundane tasks. As for creativity, whenever you're feeling like you need a new idea or a fresh concept but you don't have someone you can brainstorm with — we think AI can fill that role. And so we believe with AI sparking creativity, automating mundane tasks that will free up humans to do what they do best, which is create. I think that if we can do that as an industry, that will unlock staggering levels of productivity and benefits for society. So that's fundamentally why we're excited about it.
HULL: Who’s using this tech?
CLARENCE HU: What we see are a lot of creators, whether they're authors, musicians, entrepreneurs, Shopify merchants, they all have these very interesting ideas. But for one reason or another, usually due to financial constraints or networking constraints, they don't have someone who can help them turn that idea that's locked in their head into reality. But AI can do that. So we recently had an author who wanted to use AI to create companion illustrations for his text, for his book, and without Hotpot, he wouldn't even consider that because it just would have been cost prohibitive. He wouldn't even be able to find someone, frankly, that would be able to read each page of his book and turn it into an interesting illustration. He just didn't have the network and he didn't have the budget. But with Hotpot he was able to do that.
HULL: Is art your mission? Is this about more than just pictures?
CLARENCE HU: Absolutely. As I mentioned, we fundamentally see ourselves as a helper for creators. So we have people all over the world using Hotpot to create graphics and images, not just for personal use, but also for commercial use. So app developers are a good case. I mentioned the author and the important thing I want to underscore is that a dollar to an American is not very much. For most Americans, I should say. But to someone in India, we've had lots of customers come to us and say, “Can you give this to me for free? Because $1 is my daily income.” And $5 is a king's ransom, which is almost unimaginable for us in America. But there are so many people, literally billions of people who do not have access or the capability to create graphics because they don't have the money. Because even for them, $5 or $1 is too much. And so we hope that AI can really be this democratizing force where we don't care how much money you have, we don't care how many people you know, you can grow up in the middle of a farm in Iowa and not know anyone, but you have this wonderful idea for a book or for a song or for an app, and you need graphics and images and we can give you software to create that and bring you one step closer to reality. Now. We're not there yet fully. The AI is still raw. We're constantly working on this, but that is the vision. And I think that is the hope for all the optimists, is that A.I. can fundamentally level the playing field so that anyone can get access. Right now, you need to have either capital or you need to have a network to build something and we think the world is much better when anyone can build anything. [UPDATE from Clarence Hu: $1/day was too low an estimate, we have users in Ghana and their daily income is about $2/day.]
HULL: This technology comes with risks, are you keeping an eye on that aspect of this tech?
CLARENCE HU: Yeah, I don't want to be naive here. No technology — fire, the printing press, nothing is perfect. Everything has flaws. But there are certain things that indisputably propelled society forward. And technology is that thing. The reason why we did not succumb to hunger. and all of these doomsday predictions back in the 16th Century, 17th Century, is because of technology. Right? And so we feed the bodies, and now with AI we have an opportunity to feed the mind. Right, now look at you. You spend how many hours in meetings or doing mundane tasks? Why do we need to do that? Let's not waste your precious time. I mean, think about all the things you could have been doing for the world with those several hours of meetings. Right? And now replace those meetings with just other mundane tasks that you have to do that are just in the way of you taking whatever's in your head and putting it in the world for others to appreciate. We want to remove those barriers and we think AI can do that. And so we're trying to do our little piece, you know, and focusing on graphics and images.