Google has announced a new venture capital fund to help innovative AI companies bring their products to market.
Called Gradient Ventures, the fund will be available to small businesses and early-stage startups that are firmly focused on artificial intelligence. The goal is to help these businesses to get established and build their products.
The fund is a recognition that many of the best ideas come from individuals and teams that aren’t yet established. The company hopes it can give emerging AI specialists access to funding that lets them bring the tech of their imagination to market.
“AI-powered technology holds a lot of promise – from improving patient health to making data centers more efficient,” according to a recent blog post from Google. “But while we’ve seen some amazing applications of AI so far, we know there are many more out there that haven’t even been imagined yet. And sometimes, these new ideas need support to flourish.”
Companies that are accepted into Gradient Ventures will be granted capital resources and growth opportunities to aid their development. Google will also offer access to established AI experts, enabling upcoming companies to network with leaders in the field. In return, the startups will need to grant Google a “minority stake” in their business.
Anna Patterson, Google’s managing partner of Gradient Ventures, told TechCrunch that the fund is being managed directly from Google’s balance sheet. This may alarm some startups considering signing up but Patterson stressed that Gradient Ventures is “ROI and not strategic” investment. Patterson added that Google hopes to benefit by “spurring innovation in the AI space,” uncovering new talent and helping to develop the future of computing.
There are already four companies in the Gradient Ventures portfolio:
- Algorithimia, a “marketplace” of algorithms for other AI developers
- Aurima, creates modelling and neural network tools
- CAPE, which builds virtual drone hardware that lets operators fly drones remotely
- Cogniac, creates modelling and neural network tools.
Digital transformation for a more sustainable world
Sure, they’re confronted with business challenges every day, but the world’s top business leaders have a significant part to play in solving the world’s challenges — economic, technological, societal and educational.
As Christian Klein, Co-Chief Executive Officer of enterprise application software company SAP succinctly puts it in a blog post for the World Economic Forum, “Companies today don’t just prosper based on their financial performance, but on how they make a positive contribution to society.”
Ahead of the World Economic Forum’s 2020 meeting — taking place Jan. 21-24 — Klein outlined how digital transformation can be a force for good in the world, and be a way to create a more sustainable world.
Critical minds, he starts, might wonder why companies would take the time, considering their primary goal of making money. “These critics should not underestimate the power of the consumer,” he argues, explaining that while customers do consider their decisions based on products or price, but the company’s values. Employees act in a similar way, choosing to join companies “that embrace their responsibility towards humankind and the planet.”
Almost every person on the planet knows that technology plays a profound effect on just about every facet of our lives, from jobs to wages to health to security. Meanwhile the need for business to undergo digital transformation, simply to stay relevant and alive, is hardly big news anymore.
“But transformation is also about a change of culture, which requires a radical rethinking of people, processes and technologies,” Klein writes. Included in this are “tectonic changes” that go into a company, and how employees interact within the whole system.
“And just like a business cannot digitally transform unless – or until – its people transform, I believe that, while they come with their own environmental costs, technology and digitalization can play a crucial role in developing solutions for a better tomorrow.”
Some examples? Blockchain’s potential to add traceability (and by extension, trust) to food supply chains. The empowerment of people with disabilities through AI, which, when properly applied, can reduce bias in the hiring process. Smart cities, powered by everything from sensors to open data to better supply services and protect resources.
[Related reading: How 5G and the Internet of Things can create a winning business]
“There is no doubt that technology and digital transformation break down silos and create transparent and unified data for objective decision-making,” Klein writes. “But even more so: they change how companies manage their relationships with the wider world.”
Creating a sustainable world requires us to look beyond corporate borders, toward the communities around us, creating an ecosystem of trust “that allows us to exchange ideas to create a safety net for the most marginalized.”
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
DX survey reveals high levels of enterprise-consumer disconnect
A new survey looks at the global investment and effectiveness of businesses’ digital transformation efforts. The survey shows a disconnect between enterprise investments and consumer experiences.
The survey is titled “The Kony Digital Experience Index (KDXi) Survey”, and the main takeaway is that while businesses have invested nearly $5 trillion on digital transformation initiatives, only 19 percent of customers have reported any significant improvement in the experiences offered to them.
The Kony Inc., survey included 1,600 responses from business leaders and customers across the U.S., Europe and Asia. The responses were used to gauge the target digital project implementation efficiencies in banking, retail, utilities and healthcare. The research showed a disconnect on both sides and a potential misalignment around investment priorities, and highlighted the impact this could potentially have for businesses.
Among other things, the study found that consumers are underestimating the number of businesses that are investing heavily in every customer experience outcome by at least 50 percent. This means that while business are spending money on digital transformation projects, consumers are not necessarily noticing a difference.
The survey also reported that 62 percent of consumers say that they spend more with companies that offer effortless digital experiences, while 56 percent of consumers indicate that they will switch if a retailer does not deliver the digital experience they want. This signals the necessity for businesses to continue to invest in the digital experience for the customer. However, in doing so they need to start making an impact.
As the report states: “It is critical for businesses to have a greater focus on understanding and aligning with customer needs and priorities to ensure that they are driving the agenda for the digital technology they create and fund.”
In terms of what businesses should be doing, the basis of a strategy includes:
- Embracing innovative thinking, ambition and a commitment to improvement
- Prioritizing investment in digital outcomes, not digital initiatives
- Getting their foundations right before evolving
- Building for now, but investing in a roadmap that leads to the future
- Saying no to silos and yes to integrated digital strategy
- Setting a customer-centered digital transformation agenda
This means companies should work to provide web experiences that make it easier for users to navigate, and for websites to be more engaging and intuitive to use. There also needs to be comprehensive online and mobile facilities so that users can do everything online or via their mobile device. Furthermore, to truly step forwards, businesses need to begin offering digital experiences such as AI, chatbots and augmented reality.
Summing this up, Thomas E. Hogan, chairman and CEO, Kony, Inc. states: “Improvements in costs and efficiencies are always welcomed and clearly important to project funding, but the real returns and real impact of digital starts and stops with its impact on the customer experience.”
‘Ethical AI’ matters — the problem lies in defining it
News that Microsoft will invest around $1 billion to examine ethical artificial intelligence signals that the tech sector is thinking deeper about the ethics underlying transformative technologies. But what is ethical AI?
Microsoft is to invest around $1 billion into the OpenAI project, a group that has Elon Musk and Amazon as members. The partners are seeking to establish “shared principles on ethics and trust”. The project is considering two streams: cognitive science, which is linked to psychology and considers the similarities between artificial intelligence and human intelligence; and machine intelligence, which is less concerned with how similar machines are to humans, and instead is focused on how systems behave in an intelligent way.
With the growth of smart technology comes an increased reliance for humanity to place trust in algorithms, that continue to evolve. Increasingly, people are asking whether an ethical framework is needed in response. It would appear so, with some machines now carrying out specific tasks more effectively than humans can. This leads to the questions ‘what is ethical AI?’ and ‘who should develop ethics and regulate them?’
AI’s ethical dilemmas
We’re already seeing examples of what can go wrong when artificial intelligence is granted too much autonomy.Amazon had to pull an artificial intelligence operated recruiting tool after it was found to be biased against female applicants. A different form of bias was associated with a recidivism machine learning-run assessment tool that was biased against black defendants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recently sued Facebook due to its advertising algorithms, which allow advertisers to discriminate based on characteristics such as gender and race. For similar reasons Google opted not to renew its artificial intelligence contract with the U.S. Department of Defense for undisclosed ethical concerns.
These examples outline why, at the early stages, AI produces ethical dilemmas and perhaps why some level of control is required.
Designing AI ethics
Ethics is an important design consideration as artificial intelligence technology progresses. This philosophical inquiry extends from how humanity wants AI to make decisions and with which types of decisions. This is especially important where the is potential danger (as with many autonomous car driving scenarios); and extends to a more dystopian future where AI could replace human decision-making at work and at home. In-between, one notable experiment detailed what might happen if an artificially intelligent chatbot became virulently racist, a study intended to highlights the challenges humanity might face if machines ever become super intelligent.
While there is agreement that AI needs an ethical framework, what should this framework contain? There appears to be little consensus over the definition of ethical and trustworthy AI. A starting point is in the European Union document titled “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI“. With this brief, the key criteria are for AI to be democratic, to contribute to an equitable society, to support human agency, to foster fundamental rights, and to ensure that human oversight remains in place.
These are important concerns for a liberal democracy. But how do these principles stack up with threats to the autonomy of humans, as with AI that interacts and seeks to influencing behavior, as with the Facebook Cambridge Analytica issue? Even with Google search results, the output, which is controlled by an algorithm, can have a significant influence on the behavior of users.
Furthermore, should AI be used as a weapon? If robots become sophisticated enough (and it can be proven they can ‘reason’), should they be given rights akin to a human? The questions of ethics runs very deep.
It is grappling with some of these issues that led to the formation of OpenAI. According to Smart2Zero, OpenAI’s primary goal is to ensure that artificial intelligence can be deployed in a way that is both safe and secure, in order that the economic benefits can be widely distributed through society. Notably this does not capture all of the European Union goals, such as how democratic principles will be protected or how human autonomy will be kept central to any AI application.
As a consequence of Microsoft joining of the consortium, OpenAI will seek to develop advanced AI models built upon Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. There are few specific details of how the project will progress.
Commenting on Microsoft’s big investment and commitment to the project, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella does not shed much light: “AI is one of the most transformative technologies of our time and has the potential to help solve many of our world’s most pressing challenges…our ambition is to democratize AI.”
Do we need regulation?
It is probable that the OpenAI project will place business first, and it will no doubt seek to reduce areas of bias. This in itself is key to the goals of the partners involved. For wider ethical issues it will be down to governments and academia to develop strong frameworks, and for these to gain public acceptance, and then for an appropriate regulatory structure to be put in place.
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