Programming humanity into AI to improve clinical trials with Chuck Rinker, CEO of PRSONAS



    What do video games have to do with clinical trial engagement? And what can the 'uncanny valley' tell us about digital AI?

    For Chuck Rinker, the links are obvious - and powerful.

    We invited him onto From Lab To Launch to discuss the extraordinary potential of his company's digital AI platform, PRSONAS


    About Chuck
    Chuck's fascinating career spans from black ops military tech and EA Sports to his current AI organization, PRSONAS.

    Chuck's passionate about the power of digital technology to revolutionize and evolve human communication - particularly in the field of life science and healthcare.


    View previous From Lab To Launch episodes


    Apply to be on the show



    More of a visual person?

    Access the complete transcript of our chat with Chuck below.



    All right, so today we're talking to Chuck Rinker, CEO of PRSONAS and a self-proclaimed human AI innovator.
    Chuck and his team at PRSONAS are programming humanity into AI and revolutionizing the clinical trial industry through their iHealth assist product.
    There's more about Chuck in the show notes, but at a high level, he's gone from developing black ops military tech and NASA space-borne avionics through gaming, to the creation of new media innovations and the patented technologies behind it, including the digital personality engine that brings human engagement to self-service solutions for airports, hospitals, and commercial markets.

    We'll jump into how this applies to the healthcare and life science industry now. Chuck, thanks for joining us. Can you give us a quick overview of your background... black ops military tech?  How are you bringing that into life sciences? 

    Yeah, I've been lucky enough, and I appreciate you having me on and letting me speak a little bit about what I've had a passion for what seems like unrelated disciplines over the decades.
    But going from cattle farmer to human AI expert  is a big leap. I understand.  But the black ops piece all the way through the gaming and all really had settled in on:  how do humans engage with each other? How do we communicate?

    Not at a top level of what language you understand or how you speak, but really the gesture, communications, the subtle and  intensity of our voice when we get frustrated or the happiness in the latest.
    There's a lot of communications inside of humans that makes us engage with certain technologies, and I was lucky enough to get through the heavy tech world of the black ops as you saw there, so I appreciate you mentioning that. But really landing into something that was much more personal and deep, which was the gaming industry. And I learned pretty quickly at EA Sports.  I handled the Madden and NCAA football franchises for EA Sports for a while.

    Oh, it's my son's favorite game. 

    I always tell people if it causes problems at home, I apologize. 

    No, he's pretty reasonable. But yeah, that Madden game  and every year he's, "Mom, I need the new one.  I need the new one." 

    Absolutely. It's in the game. It's in the game. But actually, you jumped right in on a point, Kelly, that's instrumental in what the persona is. Those kids and adults. Quite honestly, people don't realize probably 40 to 45% of the gaming community are over 30 years old. It's for social gamers and the old people like me that sit around and play games  for fun as a release, as a  escape from escapism and such is we get into this sense of what we call suspension of disbelief in the gaming world, which is you believe the environment you're in.

    And when you talked about that engagement with your own children as  children are pretty much addicted to games as well, and  I should use the word addicted in healthcare, but let's say definitely motivated to play again. 

    Definitely motivated. It is certainly their primary 'play' these days.

    Yes. So we traded PRSONAS to bring that same level of motivation and engagement to industries outside and one of those industries that struck a chord and we can get into the personal reasons, multiple family members with either some dependencies or cancer and all kinds of health issues.

    It got me thinking: we're creating this personality engine and we know how to capture the gaming community, and we've been applying PRSONAS towards retail,  financial services businesses. It's a way to scale  a digital workplace . But what if we could do something at a bigger meaning, a bigger purpose?

    What if we could get people motivated and quite honestly- I'm gonna use it outta context - if we could get you addicted to being healthier. Addicted to better outcomes in your clinical trials.
    Addicted to improving overall wellness in the same way that we get motivated, as we say, to play that game an hour a day or two hours a day.

    That's the power we're trying to bring to the healthcare  industry.  That's a connection of the dots between cattle farmer to tech head to gamer to now creating a digital personality platform and ultimately trying to do something bigger with it, which is in the healthcare sector.

    That's exciting.  I love the connections there too. I think people don't realize how interconnected and related all of these things actually are,

    You are 110% correct.

    So tell us how iHealthAssist works then. How will that shape the future of the clinical trial industry? 

    We believe there's really three phases, or I  shouldn't say phases 'cos I'll confuse those that are more adept at clinical trial work than I. We've done probably about 15 or 20 clinical trials so far, and the more I do, the more I learn, but specifically how we're applying this is within the outcomes data.

    Historically speaking, the outcomes are based on, as you said,  multi-faced clinical trials. How do you get people recruited into that trial? How do you make sure they understand what they're getting into the consent process and get 'em approved, and then how do you keep 'em through that trial, that retention?

    You gotta finish your trial or the date is no good. And historically speaking, clinical trials have been grossly swayed by the demographics that you're able to attract. There's a big trust factor in clinical trials where if you're doing a clinical trial... we're currently working with our RTI on a n OBO trial, which is opioid-addicted young parents and what the impact that has on the ir children and their lives.

    And if you think about the stigma and the trust of having someone that's underprivileged has the stigma of being addicted to an opioid and then having to try to become a participant in this big healthcare system that those communities have a history of not trusting for sometimes valid reasons.

    How do you bridge that? We can't just always have clinical trials that are taking the part, pardon the politically incorrect statement,  the middle-aged white guys and make your clinical trials outcome data based on that demographic. So the ideal with PRSONAS is to create approachable, trustworthy digital personalities.

    And I'll separate digital humans for a reason we'll get into it in a minute.  So there's a lot of studies, especially from the gaming world where when you engage with an avatar, you engage with a digital personality, you engage with a gaming character, for lack of a better term. You don't have that... they're not judging you.
    You get that sense you're not being judged. There's no personal stigma associated with it, and that character can be designed for the demographic of the study. So when you're thinking about recruitment, if you're looking at a young female Hispanic population versus an elderly, there's a group up in Northwest Pacific that has a language called Mixteca, and it's a whole population.

    How do you reach a demographic like them who only speaks a certain language and those languages aren't common language? We actually taught PRSONAS on a side note to speak Mixteca. So she would greet the attendees at Columbia Health Base in Mixteca. But how do you create that personality that becomes trusting, empathetic, and non-judgmental?

    That's the recruitment and consent process that we think about. To finish the thought on the retention is as someone with a gaming kid, you'll make this leap pretty quickly: how do you keep people in a trial longer? You know what?  You give them someone they can call and someone they understand, that same person that helped recruit them, creates that trusted bond with them.

    There's emotional connection. The same reason why us Disney fanatics will buy anything as long as it's got a Mickey head on it. We have an emotional connection to that. So if you can build that emotional connection in the recruitment consent process, you have a higher probability of letting that digital personality, that let's say you've picked the female Hispanic character 'cos you identify with that character more and you feel safer with that character.

    That's the character that's gonna lead you through the remaining portions of the trial. And the hope there and belief there is that they will help that engagement maintain for compliancy. Are you doing the right exercises? Are you sticking to the regimen you're supposed to? What are the physical follow-ups and pieces?

    And then outside of all that, the obvious final question is, our final statement is by using conversational AI, you're eliminating the technical hurdles and you're basically able to scale the reach of your human trial managers and trial volunteers a lot of times, and trial professionals or healthcare professionals.

    By using some of these automated tools that people talk about, chatbots and Siri and all that, but how do you do that with the engagement piece? That's part of the scalability that comes into play. Sorry, that was a long-winded answer.

    No, it was great. And it was interesting that the first place you went to was trust because my next question was about distrust of AI, distrust of computers.

    How are you addressing those kinds of issues? 

    You're throwing me softballs Kelly! This is awesome.
    But the trust factor comes in where a lot of companies, and I don't wanna pick on my competitors, there's a lot of amazing work out there... you don't trust AI because it's obviously AI.

    And I say that jokingly, but half seriously. You think that there's a computer out there making conscious decisions, and the number one thing I defend is, "hey, you're just trying to replace humans. You're just trying to replace humans. I've seen the movie". I saw iRobot, come on. 

    I know, right?

    Yeah. My husband and I joke all the time. This is all great 'til Skynet becomes sentient, then what? We're like, "ah!" 

    Exactly. And I'll equally jokingly say we're giving way too much credit for the computer science geeks that believe with a couple of chips of silicone and some fancy algorithms, we can redefine human intelligence.

    That's not the case. The case in reality is that when you talk about trust and what AI really does, AI is really good about having a group of really smart people teaching it to do one thing and do one thing very well. And that's whatever specific problem you wanna solve it, whether it's... AI that a lot of people see in the healthcare sector is AI that might help a radiologist read a an imaging scan or AI that might evaluate blood tests and give you some probable outcomes and risk factors for reading blood tests.

    Our AI is totally different. Our AI is meant to bring that same level of engagement that we've done in electronic entertainment to take it beyond the voice interfacing  I have the utmost respect for the Cortanas of the world, the Alexas, the Siris. As a matter of fact, we make no bones.

    We've been a Microsoft innovation partner since 2007, and we rely heavily on their AI algorithms. However, the difference is some our... I'm gonna use the word copetitors, ' cause I think we all have the same goal, but their approach is more for, "hey, I want to create this character that's ultra photo realistic".

    It's gotta look like Kelly. It's gotta have the same glasses as Kelly, the same smile as Kelly. Everything to be that human replication and that creates a sense of distrust in my mind. At the core, let's be honest, we talk about the stigma of the young patient. We alluded to the opioid-addicted young parents.

    There's a stigma there anyway. If they don't trust a real human, why are you trying to recreate a human? What we're trying to do is create a communication portal so they feel safe and they feel empowered in that there's an empathetic ear on the other side that's not trying to judge against them.

    So the AI that they create sometimes falls into a term where you use, called the uncanny valley. Quite honestly, it was first introduced to me by the Vice President of Imagineering at Disney. We were talking to Disney about how to utilize these characters, and the first thing Jon Snoddy said was, "hey, you need to rethink that".

    I've been there, done that, and the uncanny valley's a real thing, meaning when something's too natural and we try to be too realistic. Since it sounds like you're a movie lover like myself, if you've ever gone to a horror movie and if the head turns a little too far, or the eyes are a little too big, or things are just a little outta whack, it creeps you out quite honestly.

    And you're immediately disconnect from it because you're like, "oh, this isn't real". 

    Exactly. That's that suspension of disbelief in gaming. However, when you also talk to the Disney animators I've talked to and you talk to all the gamers I've talked to and worked with it, EA and some of the other gaming companies I've worked with indirectly, we already say the eyes are the window to the soul. Eyes are big on cartoon characters. Not only 'cos we think kids are cute and kids have big eyes, but there's a ability for an innate character. To create emotion, empathy expression. And it be believable. Disney convinces you that a skunk has a personality.

    When you talk to your game character and I'm seeing this football player running around, or I'm playing  Mario Kart, of course I'm 6'8", so I play Bowser all the time. But when I'm playing Bowser and Bowser growling and making those motion, I actually believe I'm Bowser or Bowser's in there because you're creating that emotional connection, that bond and trust without the creepy factor, quite honestly.

    So we're not trying to do that. We're trying to create, if you notice on our website, a lot of people. There's a whole industry that Gartner's  labeling digital humans. We're not digital humans, we're digital personalities. There's a big difference. And that's a takeaway that we try to bring  to the table for the market and for the healthcare sector.

    Oh, that's interesting. Wow. And so ties right into that too. We read about how you've got program gesture communication for the deaf community and tied that in. So given that you were just talking about this rare language that you guys learned, not what we think ASL looks like for those of us who don't actually speak it, right?

    So what brought that focus into play? 

    That focus came in a  couple of ways. We focused in on gesture communication. We started early on with our PRSONAS and we're not infallible, to be honest. Our first generation of PRSONAS was overly photo realistic approach and we got corrected.

    We got corrected and told that we ought to change our approach.
    So as we focused on the communication elements and we started teaching to speak different languages and all, and we started looking at underserved communities, we did some early work with Gallaudet University out of Washington, which is probably the most predominant university for the deaf community.
    And got some positive feedback on some of the work they were doing in their labs and some of the pieces we were doing, which was trying to extend gesture communications from me. This waving at you like I'm doing now, to actually making that a more definable meaning behind the gestures.

    And so as you get more and more accurate into what the gestures are representing, It obviously migrates into gesture- based communication with assignment. So we have two members of the deaf community on our staff right now. We're doing a lot of legwork to try to create that in a more scalable fashion.

    There's still some labor-intensive approaches to that, but what we've found is that the deaf community is almost nil represented in clinical trials.
    Obvious reasons: most clinical trials are conducted in English, and even when they're attempting to reach underserved communities, maybe at least in America, we're spoiled. From Maine to Tijuana, we speak English.
    But there's maybe a Hispanic outreach or a small French population here, or Mixteca for those very specialized pieces we were talking about, but ASL was spoken by 30 million plus as their primary form of communication in the US. You don't have to just be deaf, you can be hard of hearing, you can be a member of a deaf family.

    So there's a lot of instances where ASL and gesture communication is your primary form of communication. So our desire here is to open up the demographics of clinical trials and even healthcare  in general, even though clinical trials are what we're probably talking a lot about today. We have hospital wayfinding solutions.

    We do retail communications for the deaf, we do patient advocacy type pieces. You can think through  how that would play into a scenario in the healthcare sector.
    So we basically got into it with the ability to say, wait a second, if we're gonna be inclusive, if we're gonna focus on communication, not human replication, you know what? ASL, 10% of our population,  8 to 10%, uses ASL as one of the primary forms of communication. That's a big population just to let sit by the wayside. 

    Yeah, definitely. Talk about underserved. So what other applications or connections to the  life sciences industry do AI and digital personalities have?
    How does that sort of expand, do you think, beyond maybe clinical trial focus?

    It's one of those another challenges you've highlighted, which is: when we're focusing on what we call a DXP, a digital experience platform,  a UX layer, how do you communicate between an enterprise solution? The use cases, quite honestly are almost endless.  
    I'm a cancer survivor myself, so when I was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. The first thing I did is what every cancer guy  does, jump on the Internet, go to the ACA and go, "oh shit, I'm gonna die." Pardon  the French. That was unvetted information. That was a overreaction. That was thinking about a patient advocacy role where if I had a trusted embodiment of a healthcare provider.
    Every healthcare provider can't wait up night and date with every cancer patient. So they would typically try to tell you, the first thing I always tell you is don't go to the Internet. Don't go to the Internet. Of course. Yeah. Come on. We're 2023, right? We go to the Internet.

    Use cases like that would be  tailored towards how can you be a patient advocate for  a given vetted information repository. We've done early talks with AMA about some of the journals you would see like in the New England Journal of Medicine. How do you disseminate that information without everybody sitting around reading abstracts on 14,000 published articles?

    Wouldn't it be wonderful? If Kelly Stanton was the avatar in front of the New England Journal of Medicine, and I could say, "hey Kelly, I'm looking for an article on survival rates of Dukes' 3c colon cancer with, chemotherapy treatment", and all of a sudden you're able to propagate that without me understanding databases and  I've just asked that question verbally to an avatar that I trust.

    That looks like the demographic I can identify with that has that empathy and emotion that can be scaled. So that human engagement would be like me having my own personal patient advocate. So if you think of any healthcare from wayfinding, "hey, I'm outta hospital. I've never been there. My wife's sick. I don't know my way around. I'm supposed to be at imaging in two minutes. How do I get there? Hey Daphne, how do I get the imaging lab?" 

    Or we do a job with the court system in Nevada. You walk in and it says, "what's your name?" And I'll say, "I'm Chuck Rinker." And he says, "oh, you know what? You got traffic court at three o'clock. You're in courtroom 304 and here's how you get there. Hold your cell phone up and we'll give you a map to get there." So the use cases, I know I'm trying to throw out some examples to get the flavor, but the difference is not the specific use case. The difference is how are we communicating with this plethora of IoT technologies and cognitive services and AI and speech-to-text and text-to-speech and enterprise solutions and all this stuff that's very tech heavy?

    How do you cut that down to just, how do you and I communicate when we're talking right now? And if I can wrap all that backend technology and create a personality so we're engaging like humans, that just opens up all this backend capability, all these use cases you're alluding to, to a new way of engaging humans.

    I was just thinking I would love to have that be our help center in the software platform that we provide. " Hey, talk to a quality professional. And it's not, Clippy in the corner. We joke a lot about Clippy. I love Clippy. I love Clippy. And it's funny cuz we joke a lot like  we're constantly  trying to improve the help center experience and improve the navigation.

    Improve the search engine and we're like, " wish we had Clippy. Could I just ask Clippy a question?" But I love the idea.

    Yeah I hear Microsoft's got a new version of Clippy. It's not Clippy, it's actually gonna be a digital personality that they're trying to roll into some of their Teams pieces.

    So the point I'm bringing up there is this is coming. It's not an 'if', it's a 'when'. And to me it's "what are you gonna do with this ability?" That's going to be a positive impact on people's health and wellness versus, quite honestly, just having kids have more fun and run through Mario 15, right? Cause we know that's coming someday.

    Oh God, right? Yeah, and the other thought I was having, as you were talking about all that too is somehow making sure that these personalities are  connected to good vetted libraries as well. Like when you ask Dr. Google and you get 5 million answers and three quarters of 'em are chatbots from some other country or bad AI content or whatever. I feel like that erodes the trust.
    My next question was about technology in the next 5 to 10 years, right? I think we're touching a little bit on some of the challenges to be solved, I think, to make this real.

    But, in that 5 to 10 year timeline what do you see then? How does that improve?  How do we control it or at least make sure that Dr. Google is accurate?

    That is almost an impossible question. And in a...
    Not a softball then?  
    No, that one's a little tougher.

    But in all honesty the way we're trying to field in that is going to companies. I don't know if I'm supposed to be mentioning some of our current partnerships, but we work with some pretty large health organizations. And the ideal there is to say, guys, we're the engagement experts and it's forming those partnerships, forming the companies that have the ethical check sums, we'll call them in place for what the knowledge base behind that personality is.

    It's important to understand that we're not creating those knowledge bases when we talk about AMA or Adventist Health. Like we did some work with the Disney Hospital where we created a bear that would greet kids that needed imaging done and put the kids' mind at ease to reduce sedation rates and stuff.

    And the RTI piece we mentioned with the universities for the opioid-addicted characters. My point is we're working with the clinical trial team, the clinical trial management team and even in retail." What is your brand? What is that vetted information?". And we take a little bit of a different approach.

    We're not advocating machine learning. I'll be totally blunt and upfront about that. We use Microsoft's definition, which is what we call active learning. So we wanna make sure that information that we're training, that knowledge base that we're putting into our persona's head. I was going to say Daphne, we call her Daphne, she's off through my right ear.

    You can't see her off camera. But every company creates their own personality. Workers' Credit Union calls 'em Olivia.  For RTI we have Rita, which is the Hispanic girl, Tia, which is the black female, and Ivy, which is the white female. So everybody creates these personalities, but we teach that personality what we want it to represent, so that knowledge base, when I talk about machine learning versus active learning, is unlike your Chat GPT that everybody's talking about and all, we're not letting our avatars make up their own response.

    It doesn't mean we're hand programming everything, don't get me wrong. We're definitely a scalable solution, but what we do is once you've onboarded, just like you were an employee, I onboard this employee. I teach the employee what vetted information we wanna disseminate, what we wanna push out there, what we think is appropriate to the audience that we're targeting, and then Daphne will answer everything she can.

    If Daphne doesn't know an answer, she actually doesn't make stuff up. She stops and says, "hey, you know what, Kelly, thanks for that question. I apologize. I don't know the answer, but we'll get back to it". Then what happens is, in this continuous improvement cycle, this client success cycle we have, we go back to that team, that clinical team, that retail team, that patient experience team, that passenger experience team- we do some work with airports as well -and say, this is what your employee, Daphne's your digital employee, doesn't know.

    How do you want her to handle this response? And then we train that response and then Daphne gets training. We train Daphne, just like you train an employee now she has training to act responsibly in the name of your brand. So I hope that at least partially targets how we work with an AMA or how we work with a New England Journal or clinical trial team.

    It's really that collaboration with them for those standards. 

    No, I like that. And it certainly makes me feel like I should trust it. Better, right?  That's helpful. If we pivot a little bit back to you, if you could go back to the start of your career, what would you tell yourself based on what you know now?

    Oh, wow. No more softballs from you! 

    I wasn't even prepared for that one. I was prepared for everything but that question. 

    You reference ' from cattle farmer to military guy'. That's intriguing to me. I'm an Air Force brat. I have horses and chickens out back. I've worked cattle in my life.

    I get that whole life. Awesome. And yet here I am over in life sciences, right? We all have our things and our story. So yeah. What would you tell yourself? 

    It did take me a long time, quite honestly, to get outta the... I won't call the word stigma, that's a little harsh, but you know  what's expected of a young cattle farmer? Yeah. I was never even on an airplane till I was 20 years old. And then once I got out there and started seeing what was potentially impossible, I'll give 110% credit to my father. He instilled a sense of work ethic, like nobody I've ever seen.

    And whatever you wanted, you work hard for. That persistence, that don't let the perceived 'where you're at' stop  where you want to go is probably a little philosophical takeaway of what Dad instilled in me. Just because Disney was Disney doesn't mean some of the principles Disney laid out couldn't be leveraged in.

    I'm no Disney, but I do follow a lot of Walt Disney's philosophies around human experiences and so to look at that and realize that, the Steve Jobs of the world and the Elon Musk of the world and the Walt Disney of the world all started with the basic understanding of what they were trying to change in the world.

    And every single one of 'em, neither one of 'em started out with the old silver spooning. You've heard the stories of Walt Disney and all. So I'd like to at least say I haven't accomplished that level of of genius that I like following in those gentlemen mentioned, but I do think it has played a lot of that role on telling the younger Chuck, you know what?

    They did it. So  even if you're not changing the world, you can change a few lives along the way. 

    That's awesome. I love that. I love that. Yeah. I won't veer too far off the track there, but having spent some time in the rural agricultural parts of this country, I went to Texas A&M University, there is such an amazing view of the world that I think people sell short. And so it's always, I agree with you on that. I'd love to tell those guys, "hey, keep chugging, man. You've got this." That's really powerful. 

    Cracking with you. I'm feeling that vibe. Yep.

    Definitely. Definitely.
    There's some interesting things that come out following the history of some of those individuals. Especially the Walt Disney individual. He's, he was a remarkable man in how he understood human behavior and how his goal in life was really to bring parents and kids together.

    And you do that by engaging everybody. Can you engage everybody through imagination and emotion?
    And that's what motivates people to be such Disney devout followers of the Disneys of the world, the Apples of the world, the companies that have that brand recognition and brand loyalty. And that's really the power I'm trying to bring so that PRSONAS can become that trusted, emotional, empathetic personality that we all trust.
    And it's, to your point it's collaborated on with other innovators that see that same future and create positive, vetted information in use cases. We do have a chance to change the world for the better.

    That's so awesome. I love that story. Last, maybe not so softball, question for you.

    I love this one. So if I walked into Barnes and Noble, what section would I find you in? What would you be looking at and reading? 

    Where you would find me and where I'd hope you'd find me are probably different.

    I can relate to that. 

    Yeah I think where you'd find me is in some section, depending on where you saw me.

    Where you saw the PRSONAS, you would see, oh, here's the hospital management, the facilities management section, and they're gonna talk about a wayfinder solution. And then there's another section over here that's related to marketing, how do you market a better brand and get people to have brand loyalty.

    So we'd be found in the marketing department. In all honesty, I wanna be in the philosophy department. The philosophy group. What is the philosophy of a PRSONAS? What is the philosophy of human engagement, human communication? So I'd like you to find me in the philosophy section, but I think you'd find me in those use cases.

    Interesting. All right. To wrap it all up here, where can folks go to connect with you and find out more? Follow your company's progress. 

    Wonderful. I appreciate it. Actually I'd love for anybody who's gonna be at EMS 2023 this year in Chicago to stop by our booths. PRSONAS is gonna have a small booth there and a presence.

    I do a small talk and a few demos. So for those that are interested in the healthcare use cases we've talked about, welcome to stop by and see us at EMS 2023. If you're interested in  the underlying philosophy of what a digital personality is and all the different commercial use cases and industries we can serve, our platform is under

    I personally, to be honest, just because I like following people and seeing thought leaders in their spaces, I probably spend more time on LinkedIn than anybody. So if you really wanna connect with me personally, you're probably better off doing it on LinkedIn. 

    Awesome. Thanks a lot for your time today, Chuck.

    We'll look forward to seeing where this goes in the future. 

    Absolutely. Kelly, I sincerely appreciate it and it was a pleasure meeting you.  Happy farming.