Companies today are incorporating artificial intelligence into every corner of their business. The trend is expected to continue until machine-learning models are incorporated into most of the products and services we interact with every day.
As those models become a bigger part of our lives, ensuring their integrity becomes more important. That’s the mission of Verta, a startup that spun out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).
Verta’s platform helps companies deploy, monitor, and manage machine-learning models safely and at scale. Data scientists and engineers can use Verta’s tools to track different versions of models, audit them for bias, test them before deployment, and monitor their performance in the real world.
“Everything we do is to enable more products to be built with AI, and to do that safely,” Verta founder and CEO Manasi Vartak SM ’14, PhD ’18 says. “We’re already seeing with ChatGPT how AI can be used to generate data, artefacts — you name it — that look correct but aren’t correct. There needs to be more governance and control in how AI is being used, particularly for enterprises providing AI solutions.”
Verta is currently working with large companies in health care, finance, and insurance to help them understand and audit their models’ recommendations and predictions. It’s also working with a number of high-growth tech companies looking to speed up deployment of new, AI-enabled solutions while ensuring those solutions are used appropriately.
Vartak says the company has been able to decrease the time it takes customers to deploy AI models by orders of magnitude while ensuring those models are explainable and fair — an especially important factor for companies in highly regulated industries.
Health care companies, for example, can use Verta to improve AI-powered patient monitoring and treatment recommendations. Such systems need to be thoroughly vetted for errors and biases before they’re used on patients.
“Whether it’s bias or fairness or explainability, it goes back to our philosophy on model governance and management,” Vartak says. “We think of it like a preflight checklist: Before an airplane takes off, there’s a set of checks you need to do before you get your airplane off the ground. It’s similar with AI models. You need to make sure you’ve done your bias checks, you need to make sure there’s some level of explainability, you need to make sure your model is reproducible. We help with all of that.”
From project to product
Before coming to MIT, Vartak worked as a data scientist for a social media company. In one project, after spending weeks tuning machine-learning models that curated content to show in people’s feeds, she learned an ex-employee had already done the same thing. Unfortunately, there was no record of what they did or how it affected the models.
For her PhD at MIT, Vartak decided to build tools to help data scientists develop, test, and iterate on machine-learning models. Working in CSAIL’s Database Group, Vartak recruited a team of graduate students and participants in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).
“Verta would not exist without my work at MIT and MIT’s ecosystem,” Vartak says. “MIT brings together people on the cutting edge of tech and helps us build the next generation of tools.”
The team worked with data scientists in the CSAIL Alliances program to decide what features to build and iterated based on feedback from those early adopters. Vartak says the resulting project, named ModelDB, was the first open-source model management system.
Vartak also took several business classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management during her PhD and worked with classmates on startups that recommended clothing and tracked health, spending countless hours in the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and participating in the center’s delta v summer accelerator.
“What MIT lets you do is take risks and fail in a safe environment,” Vartak says. “MIT afforded me those forays into entrepreneurship and showed me how to go about building products and finding first customers, so by the time Verta came around I had done it on a smaller scale.”
ModelDB helped data scientists train and track models, but Vartak quickly saw the stakes were higher once models were deployed at scale. At that point, trying to improve (or accidentally breaking) models can have major implications for companies and society. That insight led Vartak to begin building Verta.
“At Verta, we help manage models, help run models, and make sure they’re working as expected, which we call model monitoring,” Vartak explains. “All of those pieces have their roots back to MIT and my thesis work. Verta really evolved from my PhD project at MIT.”
Verta’s platform helps companies deploy models more quickly, ensure they continue working as intended over time, and manage the models for compliance and governance. Data scientists can use Verta to track different versions of models and understand how they were built, answering questions like how data were used and which explainability or bias checks were run. They can also vet them by running them through deployment checklists and security scans.
“Verta’s platform takes the data science model and adds half a dozen layers to it to transform it into something you can use to power, say, an entire recommendation system on your website,” Vartak says. “That includes performance optimizations, scaling, and cycle time, which is how quickly you can take a model and turn it into a valuable product, as well as governance.”
Supporting the AI wave
Vartak says large companies often use thousands of different models that influence nearly every part of their operations.
“An insurance company, for example, will use models for everything from underwriting to claims, back-office processing, marketing, and sales,” Vartak says. “So, the diversity of models is really high, there’s a large volume of them, and the level of scrutiny and compliance companies need around these models are very high. They need to know things like: Did you use the data you were supposed to use? Who were the people who vetted it? Did you run explainability checks? Did you run bias checks?”
Vartak says companies that don’t adopt AI will be left behind. The companies that ride AI to success, meanwhile, will need well-defined processes in place to manage their ever-growing list of models.
“In the next 10 years, every device we interact with is going to have intelligence built in, whether it’s a toaster or your email programs, and it’s going to make your life much, much easier,” Vartak says. “What’s going to enable that intelligence are better models and software, like Verta, that help you integrate AI into all of these applications very quickly.”