Having once turned down a multimillion-dollar offer to monetize a Covid-19 tracking website, Harvard dropout Avi Schiffmann now intends to “conquer” the world of wearable AI.
Having once turned down a multimillion-dollar offer to monetize a Covid-19 tracking website, Harvard dropout Avi Schiffmann now intends to “conquer” the world of wearable AI. By Courtesy of Avi Schiffman

Harvard Dropout Avi Schiffmann is Making an AI-Powered ‘Wearable Mom’

Having once turned down a multimillion-dollar offer to monetize a Covid-19 tracking website, Avi Schiffmann now intends to “conquer” the world of wearable AI.
By Hewson Duffy

Avi Schiffmann logs onto our Zoom fresh off a meeting with a potential investor. I ask him how startup life is treating him, and he launches into a four-and-a-half-minute discussion of the nuances of his product. I get the sense he’s highly caffeinated. Hanging from a necklace is a black disc roughly the size of an Oreo — it’s called Tab, an artificial intelligence-assisted device that Schiffmann, a 21-year-old Harvard dropout, has just been pitching.

With Tab, Schiffmann hopes to provide people with an AI “life coach” or even a “wearable mom” with better knowledge of their personality, relationships, and life story than even a close friend. Sitting in a swivel chair in his San Francisco office, Schiffmann refreshes the revenue page for pre-orders of the device as we talk — he’s about to cross over the $100,000 mark.

Schiffmann began his development career with free websites oriented toward public benefit, among them a Covid-19 case tracker and a tool to help refugees find housing. But recently he has become disillusioned with the slow-moving world of nonprofits. While the nonprofit he founded is still operating, his focus now is almost entirely on building and selling Tab.

Having once turned down a multimillion-dollar offer to monetize his Covid-tracking website, Schiffmann now intends to “conquer” the world of wearable AI.

Schiffmann is, first and foremost, a builder. A self-taught web designer, he built his first website at seven years old. In early 2020, at 17, he created a Covid-19 case-tracking website before there were even a dozen reported cases in the U.S. As infections skyrocketed, so did the site’s popularity — at one point the site had tens of millions of daily users.

By the end of the year, Schiffmann had garnered praise from Anthony Fauci, become a youth ambassador to the UN, and won a 2020 Webby Person of the Year award. Another award hailed him as a “boy genius.” Schiffmann also found time to work on websites that helped people find local protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and provided information leading up to the 2020 election.

Profit seemed the least of Schiffmann’s worries. Not wanting to give up creative autonomy on the Covid tracker or worsen the user experience, he turned down all offers to put ads on the website — including one totaling $8 million.

In the spring of 2020, Schiffmann also dropped out of high school to work full-time on his projects. He never loved traditional education — why do homework when he could program websites with real-world impact? Schiffman’s GPA was 1.7 in high school, and, according to a June 2020 interview, he doubted he would go to college.

It didn’t seem like he needed to. If anything, the internet was his school. His five-word acceptance speech for the Webby award was, “You can learn anything online.”

Schiffmann reiterates this to me in our conversation. “I don’t even know how to factor, dude,” he says. “I don’t know any fucking biology or chemistry.”

“My lack of traditional education, I actually view as a competitive edge,” he continues. “I feel like I have more naive, original thoughts.”

Still, he threw in an application to Harvard. When he was accepted to join the Class of 2025, he decided to give traditional education another try.

“What else are you going to do when you’re 17?” he says. “You don’t have clarity over what you’re gonna do and you expect college to give that to you. Also, my parents really wanted me to go to a good school.”

Although Schiffmann says he loved being at college, he felt frustrated with the academic environment.

“Most of my time I spent at Harvard was trying to convince other students to work on projects with me,” he says. “But like, everyone’s so worried about their fucking Math 55 tests.”

“He was doing his own thing a lot of the time,” says Jess L. Zisk ’25-’26, who lived in the same entryway as Schiffmann. “He just seemed like the ‘drop out of Harvard, become very successful’ type of person.”

“I don’t want to say Mark Zuckerberg, because I think he’s way cooler than Mark Zuckerberg,” she adds.

(In a 2020 video on his YouTube channel, Schiffmann said his favorite movie that inspired him to “do things with computers” was “The Social Network.”)

After just one semester — three fewer than Zuckerberg — Schiffmann dropped out.

The spring Schiffmann dropped out, he began his next humanitarian venture: UkraineTakeShelter, a website he called a “craigslist for refugees” from the war in Ukraine. Co-founded with Marco Burstein ’25, the site received backlash for its initial lack of security measures like identity verification. In a 2022 Crimson article, some experts expressed concern this would open the platform up for human trafficking. Following the complaints, Schiffmann and Burstein added safety measures.

Schiffmann now dismisses the concerns as unfounded.

“Sit there with all your Ph.D.s and complain,” he says, referring to the policy experts quoted in the article. “We never had one issue. We housed over 100,000 Ukrainians. Fuck off.” The exact numbers are hard to independently verify.

Schiffman went on to co-found the nonprofit Internet Activism to house his growing number of projects. The organization has since adapted UkraineTakeShelter to help victims of other crises and built a messaging app that would work without internet or cell service. In interviews, he talked about building a “humanitarian super-app” complete with a toolkit for anyone in a crisis.

This March, when asked on the podcast “The Dock with Omar Waseem” what he wanted to be remembered for, Schiffmann replied “allowing far more people to be remembered” through the lives Internet Activism would save.

Yet even then, he was becoming frustrated with the bureaucratic sluggishness of the nonprofit world.

To raise money for a nonprofit, Schiffmann tells me, “you have to beg people for like, 2,500 bucks.”

Not only that, he said on the podcast, but the fundraising process, “takes time and it’s really annoying. With a startup, you just have some stupid Google doc idea, and you get funding very fast.”

Schiffmann’s turn to AI began as a way to assist him with the challenges of fundraising. Especially in the nonprofit world, building relationships is key to raising money. But Schiffmann tells me that he struggled with the endless schmoozing.

“I would meet all these people at conferences, events,” he says. “And I would completely forget all of it.”

Initially, he built himself a tool that used AI to turn natural language descriptions of people he knew into a database. He eventually realized that rather than scribbling down recollections after the fact, “you could quite literally wear a microphone.”

At that point, he realized he had “stumbled into something far deeper”: the idea that, in his words, “context is all you need.” All the most important details of someone’s life — their ideas, their feelings, their relationships — could be learned with an AI wearable, recording every single thing they said.

In April, Schiffmann started working on Tab. Fueled by Redbull and $250,000 from an angel investor, Schiffmann gathered a small team and spent the next few months iterating through different designs for the device.

In its current form, Tab is both a necklace that records all your interactions and an AI chatbot on a mobile app. The app uses OpenAI’s large language model GPT-4 to glean the most important details from your conversations (say, the name and personality of a particular venture capitalist) and save that information in a structured database. Schiffman envisions that, using this database, the chatbot on the app would not only help you remember past conversations better but also help you brainstorm ideas, plan for the future, and make decisions.

“It’s like a wearable life coach, wearable mom, in a way,” Schiffmann explains.

As he and his team continue developing Tab, Schiffmann has been the device’s first and most active user. In recent months, he has posted over a dozen screenshots from the app on X, with Tab apparently doing everything from recommending him restaurants to giving him seemingly unprompted feedback on his pitch for the company.

“At this point I’m like 5% Tab,” he wrote in a Nov. 22 tweet.

“I basically go to Tab immediately for any kind of idea or decision, etc., that I’m trying to make,” he tells me. “It’s way more intelligent than I am and can basically think for me.”

He pauses, then clarifies: “But it’s not doing things for me.” Instead, he tells me, Tab just provides you “the right information” so that you can make “informed decisions.”

Though the device is constantly listening, the audio is almost immediately transmitted to GPT-4, Schiffmann tells me, so Tab does not store any recordings. Nor would OpenAI use the data to train their models, Schiffmann clarifies. He also tells me users’ personal data will be encrypted with the help of security company Evervault.

On Oct. 1, Schiffmann publicly announced the product in a video demonstration on X. He then put 100 devices up for preorder at $600 per necklace. Just over two hours later, he tweeted that 50 out of the 100 had been sold.

Along with the $100,000 in preorders, Schiffmann tells me he is now midway through raising a round of funding with a company valuation of $15 million.

Given this substantial hype, it is perhaps surprising that Schiffmann has promoted Tab almost exclusively through X — as of publication, the company does not yet have a website. Schiffmann sees this as a part of a broader “influencer marketing and branding” strategy, something he tells me is “extremely powerful” but rarely done in tech.

“People believe in individuals,” he tells me. “I’m very careful with how I present myself online and definitely try and craft an image.”

I ask him what his vision is for the image he’s crafting right now. “I’m here to conquer, dude,” he responds. “Literally right above this computer here I’ve got a giant poster of Caesar crossing the Rubicon.”

Scrolling through his tweets from the last few months reveals ample references to ancient empires — from his praise of the movie “Rome” to a picture of a life-size bust of Julius Caesar that sits on his shelf.

“Men used to raise an army and conquer a kingdom. Now, you raise capital and conquer a market,” he says. “I’m here on an absolute warpath. I will destroy all my competitors.”

Could this really be the same Schiffman of spring 2020 — the nerdy, altruistic boy genius who turned down millions of dollars to monetize his Covid-19 website? Who even said on “The Dock,” “I don’t really chase money that much right now”?

Maybe. Schiffman tells me, “I don’t care that much about business. Even though I talk about conquering markets, it’s cause that’s what you have to do in the current world for you to have influence.”

“I don’t have a business plan. I don’t have a deck,” he says. The only thing investors are looking for in early-stage startups, he tells me, is “confidence.”

Perhaps his shift in rhetoric is also linked to the culture of Silicon Valley, where Schiffmann has lived since March.

Although he describes San Francisco as a “disgusting city,” Schiffmann raves about the “vibe” of the tech community. He tells me about sitting at coffee shops and seeing “investors being pitched to.”

“Everyone’s talking about AI,” he says. “Everyone’s building companies. Everyone’s raising money.”

His side of San Francisco in particular, he tells me, is “a bubble of optimistic people.”

“This is why I love the kind of people I talk to and the media I consume, primarily from Twitter,” he says. He brings up effective accelerationism — an ideology holding that speeding up technological progress and creating superintelligent AI will bring about utopia — and tells me it is “very much supported and popular here.”

Though Schiffmann does not label himself an effective accelerationist, he does share their overwhelming optimism about AI.

“We should be doubling the amount of funding and time spent on this stuff, dude,” he says. “Accelerate twice as hard.”

Schiffmann takes the same optimistic approach toward the Julius Caesars of history.

“There’s been many atrocities in history and stuff. And you can look at that angle and be a decel,” he says, using the effective accelerationist slang term for a person who wants to decelerate technological progress.

Instead, he tells me, you can “look at the good parts” and try to make as much positive change as you can.

To Schiffmann, the move from Internet Activism to Tab isn’t worth reading into.

“I’m just building stuff. Nonprofits, LLCs — shit’s all bullshit,” he says, leaning back in his swivel chair.

He sees both as ways to “distribute stuff to the planet.”

When I ask him how he decides what project to work on at a given time, he shrugs: “Vibes, bro. I don’t know. Just whatever I’m interested in.”

Yet some kinds of projects are easier to build than others. Raising money for nonprofits is protracted and difficult. “I’d rather build my own startups to make a gazillion dollars with my own empire and fund my own work that way,” he says.

To Schiffmann, it’s really not that deep.

“I will always be doing Internet Activism, and I will always be doing for-profit stuff. Who cares?”

— Associate Magazine Editor Hewson Duffy can be reached at hewson.duffy@thecrimson.com.

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