Learning agent, based on Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Google's acquisition of DeepMind has sparked that nation's interest in artificial intelligence. Sophie Curtis takes a look at some of Britain's most promising AI companies.By Sophie Curtis 12:00PM GMT 02 Feb 2014
When Google forked out £400m for a British technology start-up this week, a lot of people sat up and took notice. Not only was it Google’s largest ever European acquisition, but the company in question was virtually unheard of.
DeepMind specialises in artificial intelligence (AI), otherwise known as 'machine learning’. Its technology is designed to mimic human thought processes, and has so far been used in simulations, e-commerce and games, according to its website.
Major venture capitalist firms Horizons Ventures and Founders Fund are invested in the company, as well as some of the most iconic technology entrepreneurs of the past decade -- including US Telsa mogul Elon Musk, teenage British app developer Nick d’Aloisio, and Skype co-developer Jaan Tallinn.
The company is based in east London and employs around 75 people but, as far as anyone knows, it doesn’t have a single commercially available product.
Even people with intimate knowledge of the sector haven’t heard of DeepMind; Martin Mignot of Index Ventures described the company as “very secretive”, while Mike Lynch, founder of the biggest software company to ever come out of Britain, Autonomy, said he had never encountered DeepMind.
“What’s interesting about this Google acquisition is what are they going to use this engine for? What are they going to do with it?” said Mr Lynch. “It will either turn out to be a piece of genius as an acquisition, or it will turn out to be a piece of lunacy, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Machine learning refers to the ability of computers to learn from data. For example, a machine learning system could be trained to distinguish between spam emails and non-spam emails, and then be used to classify new email messages into spam and non-spam folders.
“It’s not just about learning to identify what it is, but learning to identify what it means, and understanding the relationship between different pieces of information,” said Andrew Anderson, chief executive of UK artificial intelligence company, Celaton.
AI has a wide range of potential applications -- from virtual assistants like Apple Siri, which can interpret and answer questions, to cars that can automatically recognise road signs and games consoles like Xbox Kinect, which can read and understand 3D body movements. Some medical diagnosis and fraud detection techniques also employ machine learning.
Britain has some of the best research groups in the world, including Cambridge, Imperial and University College London (UCL), and is a growing centre for tech entrepreneurship. But companies specialising in AI are few and far between, and those that do exist tend to be focused in one particular area.
Google’s acquisition of DeepMind has shone a light on this relatively nascent commercial sector, and Ben Medlock, co-founder of AI firm SwiftKey, believes that the UK is capable of building sustainable AI businesses to rival the giants of the West Coast.
“The UK has a great heritage in AI, stemming back to giants such as Alan Turing, one of the undisputed fathers of the field,” said Medlock. “Our goal over the next few years should be to capitalise on our AI heritage and world class talent.”
Some experts have warned that artificial intelligence could lead to mass unemployment. Dr Stuart Armstrong, from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, said computers had the potential to take over people’s jobs at a faster rate than new roles could be created.
He cited logistics, administration and insurance underwriting as professions that were particularly vulnerable to the development of artificial intelligence.
However, Anderson said AI is not all about “hacking the workforce to pieces”. Rather it is about making individuals more productive, and making sure that “processes get applied, stuff is accurate, errors are eliminated, and compliance is met”. Analyst firm Gartner predicts that 'smart machines’ will have a widespread impact on businesses by 2020.
Here are some British companies are best placed to take advantage of this opportunity:
SwiftKey uses artificial intelligence to make personalised mobile apps. It is best known for the SwiftKey keyboard, which learns from each individual user to accurately predict their next word and improve autocorrect. Its machine learning and natural language processing technology understands the context of language and how words fit together. SwiftKey products were embedded on more than 100 million devices last year, and the company has just launched an app for iPhones and iPads called SwiftKey Note.
Celaton’s inSTREAM software applies artificial intelligence to labour-intensive clerical tasks and decision making. Every day, businesses receive mountains of information via email and paper. InSTREAM learns to recognise different types of information and process it accordingly. It never forgets, and handles huge volumes of information at high-speed. Like a real person, it asks questions when it is not sure what to do.
Lincor provides hospital bedside computers to entertain patients and engage them with relevant information and advice. This virtual personal doctor will constantly analyse live personal health data to enable preventative medicine and tailored lifestyle advice. During a hospital visit, the data will be further analysed by hospital AI, giving doctors a more complete and detailed picture.
Featurespace has developed and sells two software products based on its predictive analytics platform. One is for fraud detection and the other for marketing analytics. Its products use advanced proprietary algorithms to exploit the vast amounts of customer interaction data that many companies collect, delivering insights that can help to detect and prevent fraud and prevent customer churn.
Darktrace uses advanced mathematics to automatically detect abnormal behaviour in organisations in order to manage risks from cyber-attacks. Unlike software that reads log files or puts locks on the technology, Darktrace’s approach allows businesses to protect their information and intellectual property from state-sponsored, criminal groups or malicious employees that many believe are already inside the networks of every critical infrastructure company.