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A Security Firm’s Premier

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Joseph Zaki was appalled by the 2017 shooting that killed 60 people at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history.

At the time, he was a highly sought-after tech wizard in Hollywood, renowned for his ability to fix animation problems on films.

He walked away from that visual effects career, one that included working on four Oscar-winning films and hit series such as “Game of Thrones.”

“I was working in Hollywood—it was a wake-up call for me. I couldn’t ignore it,” Zaki recalled.

“It made me think about how this surveillance failed. I thought, ‘is there something I can bring to the fight?’”

Irvine Home

That something is a company he co-founded in 2019 to build a new type of security surveillance system, one that combines Zaki’s virtual reality-influenced computer visual effects skills with artificial intelligence to detect anomalies in real time.

Called Loko AI, the upstart firm earlier this month opened its new headquarters at the Discovery Park office complex in the Irvine Spectrum.

The result is what he hopes will not only be a new business that solves a variety of occupational safety, security and risk management problems, but a new industry.

“There’s no blueprint to build a company like this,” Zaki said.

“Once I figured out no one else has thought about this, I was willing to take the risk. If you get it right, you get everything right.”

Earlier this month, he held a grand opening at the company’s new base at 525 Technology Drive that attracted, among others, Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan and State Sen. David Min.

Animation Expert

Born in North Carolina, Zaki grew up in San Diego. In 2000, he attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to study animation.

“It was a pivotal time because you saw films transitioning from analog to digital,” he recalled. “It was a hot area. It was the dot-com boom.”

The industry needed so much talent, that Zaki paid for his education by freelancing as a graphic designer.

“It was good timing. If you were in that city and pursuing a technical art degree, all this action was happening.”

He eventually dropped out of school to pursue a career full time. However, not one of 100 résumés he sent to video game makers turned into a job.

Hence, he returned to Southern California and began working on Hollywood films, being hired by Rhythm and Hues Studios, whose claim to fame was winning a 1995 Oscar for “Babe.”

He began by working on talking animal films such as “Dr. Doolittle,” and eventually on four films that won Oscars for visual effects work: “Interstellar,” “Life of Pi,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Spider-Man 2.”

“I was known as the 911 guy,” he said. “I was the guy who put the final shot together before it goes to the editor. [I’m] the last person who touches the art before it goes to theaters. That’s a privileged place to be in a film.”

Loko Idea

After the Las Vegas shooting, Zaki started Loko AI in his Los Angeles apartment. He picked the name as a play on the words co-location and locomotion.

A $350,000 grant from Amazon Web Services and Epic Studios helped fund the company’s R&D.;

“It was a big change from Hollywood,” the 42-year-old said. “It was a chance to become an entrepreneur. I knew if I didn’t take this chance, I’d never have this opportunity again.”

Zaki has convinced some key people about his vision. His co-founder is John Mirisch, a three-time mayor of Beverly Hills.

Since Zaki’s expertise is visual effects and not artificial intelligence, he recruited as his senior machine learning adviser Ehsan Adeli, who works at Stanford University, including positions at several of its artificial intelligence labs and centers, and James Pita, the principal machine learning engineer at construction management software firm Procore Technologies and who is an expert in leveraging computational game theory to help pioneer the field of security games.

The company has one patent approved and is awaiting approval on two others.

Port Work

A trip to Washington, D.C. resulted in a chance visit to the Port of Virginia, where Zaki was told firsthand about its problems. He learned that security teams are typically smaller than realized, and companies don’t like spending money in the area.

Before he had a product to sell, he worked with the port’s security team to develop a beta platform where video would be sent to the cloud to analyze everything from a worker lifting too much, to not wearing the proper safety vests, to a trucker driving recklessly.

Video clips of offenses are sent to security officers or management.

“It’s meant to replace security people sitting there watching monitors. Instead, the AI is watching,” he said of the company’s software. “We’ve changed this whole process upside down. You want real-time alerts, and anyone can get them.”

It’s not like the infamous supercomputer Hal that went crazy in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“We’re always keeping a human in the loop to make the final decision.

“The human is at the center of the equation. We’re thinking about making that human more efficient and giving [them] a superpower to manage all that health and security.

“This is really a superpower for those teams that lack numbers or warm bodies or visibilities on their operations.”

This month, the company announced its surveillance software, Caretaker, was bought by the Port of Virginia.

Leaving LA 

Loko AI was originally based in Los Angeles, but Zaki said he had trouble attracting talent because locals disdain working on military contracts, one source of business for the company.

“We’re not embraced in the same way because we work with the military, which is unfashionable and uncool” in LA, he said.

Its new office is in an Irvine Co.-owned building. The company currently employs 12 with plans to grow to around 100.

Zaki said it’s already broken even in the recent first quarter, so it hasn’t had the need for venture capital. Still, Zaki, who has never raised money before, said he’ll probably have a Series A funding round later this year.

“We see Orange County as a vital network of companies and talent that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Zaki, who now lives in Irvine.

“We want to be part of a community. We see this as a legacy building business. We see this as a homegrown success.” 

The AI Way to Catch a Criminal

On Oct. 1, 2017, a mass murderer cut a hole in the window of the 32nd floor at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, eventually killing 60 people and injuring more than 800 others.

Joseph Zaki, co-founder and CEO of Loko AI, explained how if his company’s new Caretaker surveillance system was in place, the murderer could have been nabbed long before that hole was cut.

“Where you would have caught him was the employee elevator. No guests were allowed to use those access elevators. All the employees had their uniforms on.

“The way you’d caught him is you’d spot the anomaly of the person that never used the access elevator, didn’t have the uniform and had those heavy bags. You could’ve caught him there.

“You could have also caught him in the hallway depending on (how) heavy the bags were because of his gait. You’re talking about weapons weighing hundreds of pounds with ammunition.

“That’s unusual. You don’t see guests with a lot of heavy bags going into hotel rooms. You’re looking for these little moments to find the anomaly.”

Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.

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