Dubai-based entrepreneur creating personal AI assistant to be a ‘lifelong companion'

Generation Start-up:, a privacy-focused smartphone app, aims to help users 'win at life'

Arto Bendiken, co-founder of Haltia.AI, says a key focus for the company is privacy. Pawan Singh / The National
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Chatting with Arto Bendiken about his new start-up feels a bit like replaying Back to the Future, a film ahead of its time, which he also refers to at the end of our talk.

While he is not creating a flying car, he is hoping to develop technology that will bring the future to us.

The Dubai-based entrepreneur says he is developing a personal artificial intelligence tool that is “something like an angel on your shoulder, always there, always present” and aims to help people achieve their “life goals”, or in essence “win at life”.

In other words,, a smartphone app, is a personal AI assistant that will allow people to expand their social graph, read and respond to emails, conduct research, draft speeches and content, manage calendars, and also offer critical feedback on documents, all through natural voice interactions.

Halford and Tiana, the default avatars, will be the “lifelong companions” that will keep evolving and unlocking new features as the technology develops, according to the company.

A key part of the platform is privacy, says Mr Bendiken, who serves as the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

“The AI is on your phone, on your laptop, it does not live in the cloud. This is a crucial difference to the things that others are building,” he says.

“It is only for you and that means that you can trust it. You can actually have personal conversations with it about even intimate matters, because you know this information will never leave your device. We upload nothing to the cloud. It's all on your device, encrypted. And your devices can talk to each other. So, your laptop synchronises with your phone directly,” he says.

The app captures notes from users' voice conversations, and they can also import information, such as a LinkedIn profile, contacts, address book or other sources of data.

“Importantly, using just voice, you can amend the knowledge. Of course, the idea is that in the future – but this is a few years away – it would be potentially passively listening all the time as you go through the day and augmenting its knowledge from the titbits that it hears. But nobody has that capability, that's … a year away at the minimum,” he says.

“Haltia in Finnish means something like a master – it makes sense [in] that you would control your AI.”

This AI tool can help you speak any language

This AI tool can help you speak any language

With AI currently in the global spotlight, every aspect of the technology is witnessing a boom.

Globally, AI investments are projected to hit $200 billion by 2025, Goldman Sachs Economic Research said in a report in August.

Specifically, the size of the intelligent virtual assistant market is expected to reach $60.83 billion by 2029, from an estimated $14.77 billion in 2024, growing at a compound annual rate of about 33 per cent, according to a report by Mordor Intelligence.

Deep neural networks, machine learning and other advances in AI are making more virtual assistants possible, the report said.

While the current versions in use are chatbots and smart speakers such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, the market is set for further sophistication.

In October, Microsoft unveiled a new digital assistant powered by generative AI at the Gitex exhibition in Dubai, whose capabilities – and looks – can be customised to specific user requirements.

The AI bot, called Mai, has a ChatGPT-like interface and can assist users in navigating through tasks or gaining access to services.

It can be trained in any verticals, including services such as health care and education, Naim Yazbeck, general manager of Microsoft UAE, told The National at the time.

Haltia claims it will support users “above and beyond” standard AI capabilities, offering utility that ranges from basic tasks to complicated, predictive functionalities.

Mr Bendiken, a self-proclaimed “cypherpunk”, has been working on the basics of what is now Haltia since 2008.

Having started his entrepreneurial journey very early on in his native Finland – he first began working at the age of 11, got his first programming job at 15 and registered his first company when he was 18 – Mr Bendiken says he initially followed his father’s footsteps.

Finding that Finland did not offer the right ecosystem for “people who are driven and ambitious”, he left the country and moved to Spain and then to Berlin where his first “proper” start-up was based.

The start-up, which built the kind of database currently used in AI, “was a little bit ahead of its time” and although it got orders from the likes of US-based NXP Semiconductors and the US Navy, demand was limited to larger organisations. Mr Bendiken sold his stake in the company in 2016.

He moved to Ukraine and after Covid-19 and the war, relocated to Dubai, where Haltia was set up in October. It is also incorporated in the US.

“We estimate that we are about six months ahead of anybody [in terms of the Haltia’s offering],” he says.

“It will be totally normal a year from now to have some kind of AI locally on your phone. And so, we're a little bit ahead of that curve.”

The app is currently only compatible with some of the latest iOS smartphones, including the Apple iPhone 15, iPhone 14, and the Pro and Max models of the iPhone 13 and iPhone 12. It also available on the latest iPad Pro models and the iPad Air 5.

Haltia is also aiming to expand to Android compatibility in the future.

It will operate on a subscription-based model, with in-app purchases, and hopes to reach both individual and corporate clients.

While the basic download is free, the paid tiers range from $9 a month to $19.99 a month for individual packages. There are also family packages and those for corporate teams.

Premium members will be paired with dedicated relationship managers, with the goal to reach a million such clients, according to the company.

Offering the free option is “very critical because otherwise we lose mindshare”, Mr Bendiken says.

The app is currently in the closed beta stage and only open to staff, families of staff, insiders, advisers and investors. The immediate plan is to expand to a wider beta stage, with the waiting list for that open.

The official launch is hoped for the second quarter of this year, he says, once all the elements are in place.

“We will definitely not launch too soon, despite the massive time pressure,” he says.


Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends

To support the launch, the company is planning a trip to Silicon Valley for fundraising.

So far, Mr Bendiken, his co-founder and chief executive Talal Thabet have invested $1.2 million in Haltia, and it has also raised more than $500,000 from family and friends.

The company is currently planning a pre-seed round of about $2 million, followed by a $10 million seed round.

“So far, we limited ourselves to fundraising in the UAE. And I have to say it's not really as easy as Silicon Valley,” he says.

While there’s funding available for scaling up established start-ups, the ecosystem is not yet mature for the early stage, according to him.

However, the UAE is the market for the future and is “the frontier”.

“I'm drawn to where there is ambition and there’s drive and there’s vision, and you know, we live looking towards the stars instead of the gutter. And this is what the UAE is all about, to me at least,” he says.

“A great standard of living and just surrounded by ambition and energy and people who want to better their lot in life. It doesn't matter about what their parents and their grandparents accomplished, where they are in their journey of life. They can come here and they can improve it.”

Q&A with Arto Bendiken, chief technology officer and co-founder of

Who is your role model?

Many. Paul Graham, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, there is any number of these.

I am a big reader. So, mostly, if I am naming somebody, it is because I have read what they have written. And so, in the same vein, there is Peter Thiel – I have followed him for a long time and read everything that he said about these matters. And also, Marc Andreessen.

If you could start all over again, anything you would do differently?

I guess I would not. It is going good.

What new skills have you learnt setting up Haltia?

I would say definitely on the fundraising front, I am learning a lot. Despite having raised [money] before, really there is always more to learn. And this looks to be an ongoing learning process still.

What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?

The first one, learn the fundamentals of whatever you are doing.

The other one is that do not give up too easily. Many people give up quite easily.

And the third one would be, do not be afraid to fail … I have failed a few times. Failure is just learning and you move on.

What is your goal?

I want to basically help bring about the world that I grew up reading about. So, I am a consumer of science fiction, and that is why we are naming our meetings [AI gatherings in Dubai] the Asimov meet-up, after Isaac Asimov, who invented the robotics, invented AI alignment, and invented prompt engineering 100 years ago.

I want to actually have the world a little closer to what I read about growing up instead of this kind of rut we have been stuck in for some decades. You know, we were promised flying cars, Back to the Future and all of that. And it is actually only the UAE making that happen and serious about it. So, that is good.

Updated: April 04, 2024, 10:11 AM

Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends