An AI Origin Story

Nowadays, no TV or movie franchise worth its salt is deemed complete unless it has some sort of origin story – from “Buzz Lightyear” to “Alien”, from “Mystery Road” to “Inspector Morse”. And as for “Star Wars”, I’ve lost count as to which prequel/sequel/chapter/postscript/spin-off we are up to. Origin stories can be helpful in explaining “what came before”, providing background and context, and describing how we got to where we are in a particular narrative. Reading Jeanette Winterson’s recent collection of essays, “12 Bytes”, it soon becomes apparent that what she has achieved is a tangible origin story for Artificial Intelligence.

Still from “Frankenstein” (1931) – Image sourced from IMDb

By Winterson’s own admission, this is not a science text book, nor a reference work on AI. It’s a lot more human than that, and all the more readable and enjoyable as a result. In any case, technology is moving so quickly these days, that some of her references (even those from barely a year ago) are either out of date, or have been superceded by subsequent events. For example, she makes a contemporaneous reference to a Financial Times article from May 2021, on Decentralized Finance (DeFi) and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). She mentions a digital race horse that sold for $125,000. Fast-forward 12 months, and we have seen parts of the nascent DeFi industry blow-up, and an NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet (Twitter’s own origin story?) failing to achieve even $290 when it went up for auction, having initially been sold for $2.9m. Then there is the Google engineer who claimed that the Lamda AI program is sentient, and the chess robot which broke its opponent’s finger.

Across these stand-alone but interlinked essays, Winterson builds a consistent narrative arc across the historical development, current status and future implications of AI. In particular, she looks ahead to a time when we achieve Artificial General Intelligence, the Singularity, and the complete embodiment of AI, and not necessarily in a biological form that we would recognise today. Despite the dystopian tones, the author appears to be generally positive and optimistic about these developments, and welcomes the prospect of transhumanism, in large part because it is inevitable, and we should embrace it, and ultimately because it might the only way to save our planet and civilisation, just not in the form we expect.

The book’s themes range from: the first human origin stories (sky-gods and sacred texts) to ancient philosophy; from the Industrial Revolution to Frankenstein’s monster; from Lovelace and Babbage to Dracula; from Turing and transistors to the tech giants of today. There are sections on quantum physics, the nature of “binary” (in computing and in transgenderism), biases in algorithms and search engines, the erosion of privacy via data mining, the emergence of surveillance capitalism, and the pros and cons of cryogenics and sexbots.

We can observe that traditional attempts to imagine or create human-made intelligence were based on biology, religion, spirituality and the supernatural – and many of these concepts were designed to explain our own origins, to enforce societal norms, to exert control, and to sustain existing and inequitable power structures. Some of these efforts might have been designed to explain our purpose as humans, but in reality they simply raised more questions than they resolved. Why are we here? Why this planet? What is our destiny? Is death and extinction (the final “End-Time”) the only outcome for the human race? Winterson rigorously rejects this finality as either desirable or inevitable.

Her conclusion is that the human race is worth saving (from itself?), but we have to face up to the need to adapt and continue evolving (homo sapiens was never the end game). Consequently, embracing AI/AGI is going to be key to our survival. Of course, like any (flawed) technology, AI is just another tool, and it is what we do with it that matters. Winterson is rightly suspicious of the male-dominated tech industry, some of whose leaders see themselves as guardians of civil liberties and the saviours of humankind, yet fail to acknowledge that “hate speech is not free speech”. She acknowledges the benefits of an interconnected world, advanced prosthetics, open access to information, medical breakthroughs, industrial automation, and knowledge that can help anticipate danger and avert disaster. But AI and transhumanism won’t solve all our existential problems, and if we don’t have the capacity for empathy, compassion, love, humour, self-reflection, art, satire, creativity, imagination, music or critical thinking, then we will definitely cease to be “human” at all.

The Bibliography to this book is an invaluable resource in itself – and provides for a wealth of additional reading. One book that is not listed, but which might be of interest to her readers, is “Chimera”, a novel by Simon Gallagher, published in 1981 and subsequently adapted for radio and TV. Although this story is about genetic engineering (rather than AI), nevertheless it echoes some of Winterson’s themes and concerns around the morals and ethics of technology (e.g., eugenics, organ harvesting, private investment vs public control, playing god, and the over-emphasis on the preservation and prolongation of human lifeforms as they are currently constituted). Happy reading!

Next week: Digital Perfectionism?

 

Pitch X – Launch Into A New Decade

Last week I was invited to be one of the judges at the final Pitch X event of 2019 (and of this decade), organised by Academy Xi and Melbourne Silicon Beach Group, and hosted by YBF Ventures. My fellow judges were Abena Ofori of MAP and Michelle Bourke of Foresight Digital.

As usual with Pitch X, each pitch was given 90 seconds to present, and the top 3 were then invited back for a 5 minute pitch. After each pitch, the panel of judges were given time for Q&A. The pitches in order of presentations in the first round were:

MotionAI

Remote monitoring system for people who require care, in case they fall or need assistance in their home. Designed around a combination of machine learning, AI and motion sensors (that don’t track facial recognition). Only decision-based information is sent to the monitoring network.

Sola.io

Investment platform to fund solar power under a virtual power plant structure, bringing together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

Oyumz

Bringing home-cooked meals to the food delivery market. Currently in beta launch, looking to bring on new cooks and suppliers. Limited number of providers at this stage, and having to manage regulatory (food hygiene and licensing) and logistical (delivery, inventory, geography) challenges.

CPAP Buddy

Developing CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) oxygen masks, designed for premature babies, and intended to prevent brain damage or other injury that can arise from incorrectly fitted or poorly designed devices. Combines real-time monitoring with continuous visual feedback and detection of interfacial contact pressure.

Travels by TM

Helping people to gain the confidence and resilience to go travelling alone. Part curated travel planner, part counselling course, part self-help guide. As judges, we felt it was difficult to see how this business would scale, given the very personal nature of the service.

Mentor Community

Positioned as a match-making mentoring platform, it is designed to overcome some of the challenges people can experience in trying to find a suitable or appropriate mentor. Very difficult to know what technology is being deployed (to match mentors and mentees), in what is an uneven “market place” – more people seeking mentors than there are people willing or able to mentor them. And no opportunity to examine the financial model.

Fulfilled

Bringing “zero waste” cleaning products to the market. Distributes concentrates, that simply need diluting in water, and avoids the use of single-use packaging. Using Australian-produced botanical ingredients. There was some confusion on the business model – the pitch mentioned a home delivery subscription service, and supplying to professional cleaning companies.

VibeDate

Describing itself as a curated service offering unique and personalised dating experiences. No doubt there is a market for outsourcing your date decisions (or just to get some fresh ideas), but this was another pitch that would be difficult to scale, and again, it wasn’t clear how technology is being deployed in the solution.

PetMate

A total marketplace for pet products, services and solutions that also uses ML, AI and data analytics to track, recommend and predict your pets’ needs.

Cari

Another customised CPAP solution for premature babies, but also targeting neo-natal infants with sleep apnea conditions. Already at prototype stage (and scoping manufacturing options for medical grade silicon), but with at least 2-3 years of clinical trials before achieving medical device approval, the team have already identified multiple channels to market including hospital purchasing committees.

The three winning finalists were 1st: Sola.io; 2nd: MotionAI; and 3rd: Cari

As part of their prize, the winners will be featured in this blog in the near future. Stay tuned for more updates…

Next week: Signing off for Saturnalia

Startup Victoria – Best of the Startup State Pitch Night

In support of Victoria’s reputation as “Australia’s Startup State”, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night was designed to showcase four of the best local startups. Hosted by Stone & Chalk, the judges were drawn from Mentorloop, Brosa, Giant Leap Fund, Rampersand and Vinomofo.

The pitches in order of presentation were (website links embedded in the titles):

Code Like A Girl

Founded four years ago, Code Like A Girl’s stated mission is to bring greater gender diversity to the ICT sector (information and communications technology), within both the industry and education spheres. To do this, the founders say we need more female coders, which they plan to achieve via coding camps, internships, and community events. Positioning itself as a social impact enterprise, the business is active in four States, and 75% of interns are placed into full time roles.

To support the ongoing development of its “role ready” value chain and to prepare for possible overseas expansion, Code Like A Girl is seeking $1.5m in seed funding. Currently piloting the training model via education providers (RTOs, boot camps, universities, online code schools), the business takes a 10% commission on courses sold (held twice a year), plus it charges placement fees of $2k per person.

But the model is difficult to scale, especially as Code Like A Girl does not own or create the actual training content – it is acting as a sales channel for third party courseware, and providing platform for advocacy, engagement and influence. Its key metrics are based on things like social impact scores – such as 30% of kids return to boot camps. The panel felt that the community platform is a huge cost centre, and it might be preferable to try a TedX model, where Code Like A Girl provides branding and foundational support to build more of a network effect – but without its own curriculum, the business will still struggle to scale.

Seer Medical

The business claims to make epilepsy diagnosis easier, and is currently raising $14m for European expansion (UK & Germany). To improve current diagnosis, the model needs to capture time series data to distinguish epilepsy from other conditions, but do so faster, cheaper and more efficiently than current processes. Founded in 2017, Seer has already serviced more than 1500 patients via 200 clinicians.

Using the Seer Cloud infrastructure,  it can achieve diagnostic outcomes 10x faster than traditional methods, and the platform is using machine learning to train its algorithms. The service is subject to Medicare reimbursement, which has no doubt assisted adoption.

Asked by the judges if the platform could be used to diagnose other conditions, the founders mentioned cardio, sleep and other health domains. As for competition, this comes mainly from the status quo – i.e., hospital based services. With advocacy from neurologists, giving them access to customers, the founders have a strong track record in the research field, which helps to open doors with clinicians. Along with research partnerships, plus the public health cost reimbursement, data is the fuel of the business –  Seer even have access to some third party data on which to train their diagnostic.

Liven

A dining rewards app, Liven is also bringing a behavioral gamification layer to a real world use case. Currently, there is a poor linkage between loyalty programmes and gamification. So, Liven has launched a universal reward token (the LVN token) for use in a digital/real world context.  The details were scant, and the status of the LVN token sale is unclear, but it seems users can earn LVN tokens from completing certain “missions”. The token (using a standard ERC 20 token format on the Ethereum blockchain), is designed to be interoperable and fungible (but Liven does not yet appear to use blockchain in its end user app or merchant point of sale solution).

The said merchants pay a 10-25% commission on app-based sales, of which upto 40% is paid back to the end user in the form of LVN tokens – if I got the maths right, Liven itself is securing $15 profit on every $100 of sales. Currently only available in Melbourne and Sydney, the judges wanted to know what the appeal is to merchants. According to the founders, users typically spend more in an average transaction when they use the app. It also seems that the app only works in brick and mortar restaurants, cafes and bars. The path to scaling will be via channel partners such as PoS systems.

Although not yet deployed, in future, it was suggested that users will be able to pay in any crypto – which raises all sorts of questions about the tokenomics of the LVN token, and whether LVN will be subject to exchange rate volatility (and even token speculation) or act as a stable coin; if the latter, what will it be backed by or pegged to?

Phoria

Phoria is in the business of extended reality technology (XR). Started in 2014, Phoria was an entrant to the Melbourne Accelerator Programme (MAP), with the stated goal of moving VR into a mobile experience (“democratize VR”).  Having gained some clinical VR research experience, Phoria has since worked on commercial projects such as “Captured” (turning a 3D scan of a building or structure into a Digital Twin), “Rewild Our Planet” (a Singapore-based AR experience), and various art installations museum exhibits.

Phoria is commissioned by tech and media brands to create XR content. It has developed a SaaS model, whereby it can turn real space into virtual space (“virtualising internal space”).

The judges wondered where we are along the cycle of mass adoption vs peak hype. In response, the founders mentioned that the first wireless headsets are now available, although consumer-facing mixed reality hardware is still 3-5 years away. With a growing customer base in engineering and architecture applications, Phoria’s main focus is on spatial information.

After the votes were counted, the People’s choice was Seer Medical, who also won the overall prize.

Next week: 30 years in publishing

Demo Day #2 – Startmate

The same day as the recent Startupbootcamp event, the latest cohort of 8 founders to complete Startmate’s programme in Sydney held their own Demo Day in Melbourne.

The pitches in order of appearance were (websites links embedded in the names):

Muso

A live music marketplace, connecting venues and artists. Venue booking managers are too busy to research available talent, and artists face an inordinate number of individual processes to manage bookings and post-event admin. So Muso joins the dots, curates the artists, and takes a share of the listing and booking fees. In a world where more and more independent artists are self-releasing their recordings via platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it makes sense to extend this to managing their own tour bookings. Muso already claims to have booked 400 gigs at an average fee of $300, and also plans to expand into the US, UK and NZ markets. Currently seeking $1.2m seed funding.

VAPAR

Fault detection in infrastructure is highly manual, subjective and very expensive. VAPAR is using machine learning and cloud hosting to automate the analysis of video footage for underground pipes and sewers. A task that can currently take 2 weeks to complete can now be done in 2 minutes. Clients upload their footage and fixed asset data via a web platform, and VAPAR generate a report based on the image scanning. The business model offers a free trial access, a paid pilot project engagement, and a price per metre of pipe. Currently seeking $500k in seed funding.

VEXEV

According to the founders, vascular disease is the single largest cause of death, so there is increased focus on detection and prevention. Measuring and tracking blood flow patterns can be expensive and invasive. VEXEV uses 3D imaging captured from safer and lower cost ultra-scan technology, to measure disease progression, and to monitor and predict patient outcomes. Already secured seed funding from Blackbird Ventures.

Glamazon

This is a marketplace for at-home beauty services, “bringing a salon experience to your own living room”. According to the founders, a beautician could earn $80 per treatment compared to $23 if they work in a salon. Glamazon also offers its own business management platform via a SaaS model.

Cogniant.co

An app to “predict and manage mental health disorders before they happen“. Offers a dashboard interface for clinicians to manage their client case load, using data collected on patients’ activity and behaviour via their smart phone devices and sensors. Looking to raise $1m in seed funding. My personal observation is that a key contributing factor towards certain mental health disorders appears to be increased screen time (social media, apps that track our every move, binge watching, constant content streaming and always being “on”), leading to increased isolation, among other symptoms. While I can see the value of the data capture and analysis, hopefully the process does not reinforce the negative connotations.

Pixelated Induction

Introducing ClickCharge, a scalable wireless charging system that enables any surface to become a conductive medium. Some may remember that Apple tried its own solution, AirPower, that quietly ran out of steam. ClickCharge claims to have 3 times the charging area of AirPower, and can even charge laptops, via its inter-connecting tile design. Having filed an international patent, the founders are seeking $1.7m in seed capital to fund the build of 40,000 units for which they are currently taking pre-orders.

Bioscout

A remote system for crop monitoring and disease detection, using airborne particle tracking and analysis. Having run some field trials with banana and avocado crops, the team has identified considerable cost savings for farmers, both in terms of produce protected, and reduced use of preventive chemicals. (With the industry currently spending $2.5bn on crop monitoring and disease prevention, yet still losing $2.4bn in damaged fruit, any savings must be welcome.) Remote devices provide real-time monitoring and alerts combined with an analytics dashboard. Cost is expected to be $30k per device, plus $2k per month. The latter is presumably to pay for satellite connectivity, as the founders discovered that a key challenge for farmers is the lack of mobile phone reception in remote and rural areas.

Live Graphic Systems

This startup is aiming to reduce the cost of creating branded graphics for live sports streaming, from $5k per game to $100 per game. Current solutions involve manual processes, custom software, expensive hardware and dedicated people to operate them. Live Graphic Systems offers a scalable solution that connects brands to live streaming events, at near-zero marginal cost.

Next week: Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night