An article published in The Guardian on May 15, 2017
by Jon Card
The UK’s artificial intelligence sector is booming and the technology is transforming how businesses of all sizes operate
At the opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence in Cambridge last year, Professor Stephen Hawking told the crowd: “Success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation. [It will be] either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.”
It is perhaps not coincidental that the centre, which brings together researchers to investigate the implications of AI, has been established in this country. Five of the world’s biggest technology companies have bought UK AI businesses in recent years, including DeepMind, which was acquired by Google for a reported $400m in 2015, SwiftKey (bought by Microsoft for an estimated $250m) and Magic Pony Technology (acquired by Twitter for $150m). Analysis by MMC Ventures shows the number of AI companies founded in the UK doubled in 2014-16, compared with 2011-13. Over the past three years, a new AI company has been launched almost every week.
A government report (pdf), published last year, found that achievements in AI have so far been driven by research centres and startups, rather than by any government strategy. Subsequently, the spring budget introduced a £270m investment fund for disruptive technologies such as AI and robotics.
AI firms are changing how brands engage with customers. SoDash, a UK-based software company founded by Daniel Winterstein and Joe Halliwell in 2011, enables companies to work with social media at scale and is used by brands such as Virgin Trains to analyse messages, prioritise customer service issues and isolate irrelevant social chatter. This year, Winterstein and Halliwell developed Orla, a bot that helps small businesses improve their reach on Twitter.
“Traditionally with a social automation tool, you tell it broadly who you want to interact with, turn the key, and hope,” Winterstein says. “Not only is this highly risky, it’s an insincere and deceptive method of interaction.”
Orla finds relevant content for businesses, analyses followers of competitors and suggests recommendations for retweets and follows. “Doing all of this organically would take hours per day, with Orla, it takes minutes,” Winterstein adds. “Whenever you give [the bot] feedback, she’s learning from the user … and will tailor her suggestions accordingly. Over time, Orla is able to act as near as possible to how you would on social media.”
It’s a low-cost solution – £19 per month – for a small team just getting started with the intricacies of a social media marketing plan. But Winterstein is realistic about the bot’s abilities. “Orla would need a lot less training than a human staff member would … [but] she will never show the creativity and depth of understanding a human does. You won’t be firing your marketing director and replacing them with Orla.”
As technology advances, AI will continue to push the boundaries. Research by consultancy firm Accenture shows that realising the UK’s potential in this sector would add £654bn to the economy by 2035. Earlier this month, Siemens UK chief executive Juergen Maier warned that AI is vital to the UK staying competitive.
But there are undoubtedly ethical and legislative decisions to be made about AI as it continues to evolve – something the all-party parliamentary group on artificial intelligence, established in January 2017, is exploring.
Drew D’Agostino, the founder of Crystal, admits his personality profile tool was seen as “creepy” when it first launched in the US. “That usually only comes from people who haven’t used the product though. When you understand what Crystal does, you’ll see it’s simply automating the process of reading about someone and doing a quick best-guess of their personality. Something we do every day as humans,” he says.
The tool enables businesses to create personality assessments of sales prospects based on data from their LinkedIn profiles, social media and blogposts. The site divides personalities into dominant, influencer, steady, and calculating types. It then offers advice about how to best contact the target customer, what type of language to use in emails and will even write a draft for you. “Businesses use Crystal to communicate better with their prospects, customers, and job candidates,” D’Agostino says, adding that the firm has 1,500 companies using the tool. On average, he says the system is 85% accurate, which some have found disconcerting. But he insists it’s simply a way to automate and speed up interactions between people.
REIMAGINING ENTIRE INDUSTRIES
AI is already redesigning how entire industries operate – from chatbots providing customer service support, automated virtual assistants, and art recommendations, to the machine learning that powers self-driving cars and platforms that can diagnose skin cancer.
For many small business owners, routine tasks in accounting, customer service and HR are now being automated. The legal sector is another area expected to experience disruption as AI offers cheaper solutions to traditional solicitors. Last year, the website Contractor Calculator re-launched its AI-powered IR35 testing tool. IR35 is the rule HMRC uses to determine whether someone is genuinely self-employed, or technically an employee. Businesses and contractors sometimes fall foul of this law and end up owing more tax. “We’ve built a bot which acts like a lawyer or a judge,” says Dave Chaplin, the founder and CEO of Contractor Calculator.
Contractor Calculator’s virtual lawyer can work through complex tax law as fast as a human can answer the requisite questions around their employment status – in around 15 minutes. “A paralegal would be doing this for £100 per hour. We provide a report for £25,” Chaplin says. Chaplin is bringing in a PhD qualified mathematician to aid the company with future machine learning projects and is positive about the benefits AI will bring. “Some will see it as a threat but they could see it as an opportunity to focus on the really high value stuff,” he says.