Welcome to this edition of our Tools for Thought series, where we interview founders on a mission to help us think better and work smarter. Alec Nguyen is the co-founder of Afforai, an AI tool to perform research and interact with documents. He is now on a mission to make AI tools more accessible to everyone, whatever their background.
In this interview, we talked about privacy and security in the AI industry, why multilingual support is paramount for inclusive AI, the importance of reliability for knowledge workers, and much more. Enjoy the read!
Hi Alec, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! Afforai started as a college project. Can you tell us about the early discovery journey?
My cofounder, Hung, and I have known each other since our first year of college. We both have backgrounds in economics, data science and software engineering, which means we read a lot of research papers. But it started feeling overwhelming—so much to read and summarize. That’s when we thought about a faster way to read through papers, get the main points, and still do our work accurately. And this is how we came up with Afforai.
During our final year at university, we developed Afforai for a startup competition. Our success as finalists, along with acceptance into two amazing startup accelerators, 1871 and gener8tor, marked significant milestones that led to us pursuing Afforai full-time. We are building Afforai to be the solution we wish heavy researchers like us had.
Your ambition is to create Google for knowledge—what does that mean, exactly?
With so much knowledge about anything and everything around the world, it’s really easy to get drowned from the sea of information. No one person can master anything anymore. There’s simply too much to know.
Google managed to index websites and data from the entire internet, but it doesn’t understand the information it indexed. We’re working to build a platform that index knowledge, making infinite knowledge instantly accessible.
Specifically, how does it work?
Afforai helps you input all the information on any topic, from any discipline, in any language, and summarize the key findings relevant to your goals. Providing you an invaluable tool to research damn near anything. It can search information, summarize reports, and translate between languages, answering and explaining in a different language than the original text.
You can upload hundreds of documents and files like pdf, docx, text, and even websites and Afforai will be able to comprehend the entire body of knowledge you provided to give you the answer you’re looking for.
Can you also tell us about the different modes you have created for the assistant?
Afforai has three different modes, Fast, Powerful, and Google Modes, when it comes to the way Afforai gathers and comprehends the knowledge to give you the answer you’re looking for.
The “fast mode” (default) is designed for tasks like information look-up and creating website chatbots. This mode uses Regular Retrieval Augmented Generation AI (RAG) to embed a collection of text into a vector database. This technology struggles with answering questions that are not explicitly given in the database and has length limits for generating responses.
The “powerful mode” is designed to address the above limitations. This mode identifies information that may not be explicitly stated or requires additional reasoning. It also combines information from different answers and filters out redundant or irrelevant information. The resulting output is an information-dense answer with a reading coverage of 100,000 words, which is 10 times that of Fast mode. Powerful model is recommended for tasks like document comprehension, reasoning tasks, writing reports, and research.
The “Google Mode” is pretty self-explanatory. Turning this mode on will allow Afforai to access the internet to supplement the answer when our AI determines that the provided documents don’t have enough information. This also adds an extra layer to guarantee up-to-date information for your answer. AI + Internet = Magical Answers.
Something people often worry about with AI tools for research is the accuracy and reliability of the output. How does Afforai address this challenge?
Of course, my goal is to build an AI tool that people can trust: accurate, fast, and reliable. You can upload hundreds of files like pdf, docx, and websites to Afforai. Afforai will use our Powerful Mode algorithm combined with Azure OpenAI model to understand, extrapolate information that is both explicitly and implicitly stated from the sources.
To be even more helpful with your knowledge research work, you can view the files, documents side-by-side with our document viewer feature as you ask questions to Afforai. So you don’t have to switch tabs back and forth as you work.
Expanding on the document viewer, you get accuracy and reliability for every answer given by the AI with data citation feature. With every answer given by Afforai, you will get clickable citation links that would highlight on the document viewer where Afforai got the answer from. From the page of the document and down to the paragraph, every single time.
You can also connect Afforai chatbot with Google, giving you the ability to do real-time research with up-to-date information. Building on top of an overpowered data comprehension ability, Afforai also accesses the internet and fills in any information gaps to provide you with the most accurate answer.
You’ve also worked hard to address the challenge of multilingual content.
I came to the US as an international student, so English is not my first language. This gives me the understanding that knowledge exists not only in just English. Supporting multilingual content was incredibly important to me personally and I believe this gives my users in the US and internationally around the world equal access to Afforai and equal access to knowledge, anywhere and everywhere, regardless of cultural and language barriers.
With Afforai, you can upload files and research papers in foreign languages and get a response in English and vice versa. Giving an example, you can upload a pasta recipe on an Italian website and ask in Japanese about the recipe, Afforai will give you an answer back in Japanese about a pasta recipe in Italian. This is possible to do with over 100 languages.
What about privacy and security?
I’ve been a user for so many apps and services, so I understand firsthand how I’d like my data to be protected. So, having an opportunity to build my own startup, I always think how I would feel if I’m an user of Afforai.
With that said, I do not ever use your data or sell your data to any other companies. I don’t store your conversation with the AI, and the files you uploaded on the system are stored and encrypted on the cloud using Microsoft Azure and MongoDB with their standard security. LLM calls are made using Azure OpenAI with their security measures.
What about you, how do you use Afforai?
There are many ways I’ve personally used Afforai in my own work. For instance, I use Afforai to scan through partnership agreements for my startup. I upload an entire 600-page macroeconomics book and use “Powerful Mode” to learn, summarize chapters, and create knowledge check questions. I have also used Afforai to create an internal training chatbot for my team members.
How do you recommend someone get started?
To get started with Afforai, I recommend following these steps. First, you can sign up for Afforai for free and get 50 credits to try the platform. You will go through a quick welcome guide that will help you get started with using Afforai. Then, you will be able to upload many types of documents such as books, papers, reports, and even Ness Labs articles. You can upload multiple documents at once.
And this is the aha moment you will experience: You can immediately start asking questions to Afforai just like you would ask a know-it-all friend. For example, you can ask for a summary of the Ness Labs blogs, extract common themes from the documents, or even draft an email based on a team report.
Tasks that would have taken hours or even days to complete can now be done in just minutes with the help of Afforai. The reliability of the information provided by Afforai satisfies me as a knowledge worker. The AI provides detailed citations, giving me the confidence to use the knowledge it provides.
Many users, including myself, have saved a lot of mental power, significant amounts of time and boosted productivity with Afforai. Students use Afforai to summarize their readings for their school work. Sales teams have relied on Afforai to conduct customer research faster and get the most relevant info to send effective outreach emails.
That sounds fantastic, and very easy to get started. And finally… What’s next for Afforai?
In terms of development, I want to stay true to my vision, making Afforai your second brain, helping you make infinite knowledge instantly accessible and making you the smartest person in your field. I have sales teams, researchers, and knowledge workers starting to use Afforai in their work and I’m very happy to see the value I bring to these amazing people.
We’re also expanding our team, having new brilliant minds joining Afforai to help make it even better. This enables my team and I to polish up the platform, develop new features that would give our users a better experience. Because at the end of the day, the users are the people that bring value to Afforai.
Thank you so much for your time, Alec! Where can people learn more about Afforai?
If you read all the way here, I encourage you to sign up and try it here. You can message me directly on my LinkedIn or email me. I personally check this inbox every day. So these two methods are the fastest to get a direct hold of me.