Connect with us

Uncategorized

Five ways to make AI a greater force for good in 2021

Published

on

A year ago, none the wiser about what 2020 would bring, I reflected on the pivotal moment that the AI community was in. 2018 had seen a series of high-profile automated failures, like self-driving car crashes and discriminatory recruiting tools. In 2019, the field responded with more talk of AI ethics than ever before. But talk, I said, was not enough. We needed to take tangible actions. Two months later, the coronavirus shut down the world.

In our new socially-distanced, remote everything reality, these conversations about algorithmic harms suddenly came to a head. Systems that had been at the fringe, like HireVue’s face-scanning algorithms and workplace surveillance tools, were going mainstream. Others, like to monitor and evaluate students, were spinning up in real-time. In August, after a spectacular failure of the UK government to replace in-person exams with an algorithm for university admissions, hundreds of students gathered in London to chant, “Fuck the algorithm.” “This is becoming the battle cry of 2020,” tweeted AI accountability researcher Deb Raji, when a Stanford protestor yelled it again for a different debacle a few months later.

At the same time, there was indeed more action. In one major victory, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM banned or suspended their sale of face recognition to law enforcement, after the killing of George Floyd spurred global protests against police brutality. It was the culmination of two years of fighting by researchers and civil rights activists to demonstrate the ineffective and discriminatory effects of the companies’ technologies. Another small yet notable change: for the first time ever, NeurIPS, one of the most prominent AI research conferences, required researchers to submit an ethics statement with their papers. 

So here we are at the start of 2021, with more public awareness of and regulatory attention on AI’s influence than ever before. My New Year’s resolution: Let’s make it count. Here are five hopes that I have for AI in the coming year.

Reduce corporate influence in research

The tech giants have disproportionate control over the direction of AI research. This has shifted the direction of the AI field as a whole toward increasingly big data and big models. There are several consequences of singularly investing in this approach. It blows up the climate impact of AI advancements, locks out resource-constrained labs from participating in the field, and leads to lazier scientific inquiry by ignoring the range of other approaches. As Google’s ousting of Timnit Gebru revealed, tech giants will readily limit the field’s ability to investigate other consequences as well.

But much of corporate influence comes down to money and the lack of alternative funding. As I wrote last year in my profile of OpenAI, the lab initially sought to rely only on independent wealthy donors. The bet proved unsustainable, and four years later, it signed an investment deal with Microsoft. My hope is we’ll see more governments step into this void to provide non-defense-related funding options for researchers. It won’t be a perfect solution, but it’ll be a start. Governments are beholden to the public, not the bottom line.

Refocus on common sense understanding

The overwhelming attention on bigger and badder models has overshadowed one of the central goals of AI research: to create intelligent machines that don’t just pattern match but actually understand meaning. While corporate influence is a major contributor to this trend, there are other culprits as well. Research conferences and peer-review publications place a heavy emphasis on achieving “state-of-the-art” results. But state of the art is often poorly measured by tests that can be beaten with more data and larger models.

It’s not that large-scale models could never reach common sense understanding. That’s still an open question. But there are other avenues of research deserving of greater investment. Some experts have placed their bets on neurosymbolic AI, which combines deep learning with symbolic knowledge systems. Others are experimenting with more probabilistic techniques that use far less data, inspired by a human child’s ability to learn with very few examples.

In 2021, I hope the field will realign its incentives to prioritize comprehension over prediction. Not only could this lead to more technically robust systems, the improvements would have major social implications as well. The susceptibility of current deep-learning systems to being fooled, for example, undermines the safety of self-driving cars and poses dangerous possibilities for autonomous weapons. The inability of systems to distinguish between correlation and causation is also at the root of algorithmic discrimination.

Empower marginalized researchers

If algorithms codify the values and perspectives of their creators, a broad cross-section of humanity should be present at the table when they are developed. I saw no better evidence of this than in December of 2019, when I attended NeurIPS. That year, it had a record number of women and minority speakers and attendees, and I could feel it tangibly shift the tenor of the proceedings. There were more talks than ever grappling with AI’s influence on society.

At the time I lauded the community for its progress. But Google’s treatment of Gebru as one of the few prominent Black women in industry showed how far there still is to go. Diversity in numbers is meaningless if those individuals aren’t empowered to bring their lived experience into their work. I’m optimistic though that the tide is changing. The flashpoint sparked by Gebru’s firing turned into a critical moment of reflection for the industry. I hope this momentum continues and converts into long-lasting, systemic change.

Center the perspectives of impacted communities

There’s also another group to bring to the table. One of the most exciting trends from last year was the emergence of participatory machine learning. It’s a provocation to reinvent the process of AI development to include those who ultimately become subject to the algorithms.

In July, the first conference workshop dedicated to this approach collected a wide range of ideas about what that could look like. It included new governance procedures for soliciting community feedback; new model auditing methods for informing and engaging the public; and proposed redesigns of AI systems to give users more control of their settings.

My hope for 2021 is to see more of these ideas trialed and adopted in earnest. Facebook is already testing out a version of this with its external oversight board. If the company follows through with allowing the board to make binding changes to the platform’s content moderation policies, the governance structure could become a feedback mechanism worthy of emulation.

Codify guardrails into regulation

Thus far grassroots efforts have led the movement to mitigate algorithmic harms and hold tech giants accountable. But it will be up to national and international regulators to set up more permanent guardrails. The good news is lawmakers around the world have been watching and are in the midst drafting legislation. In the US, Congress members have already introduced bills to address facial recognition, AI bias, and deepfakes. Several of them also sent a letter to Google in December expressing their intent to continue pursuing this regulation.

So my last hope for 2021 is that we see the passing of some of these bills. It’s time we codify what we’ve learned over the past few years, and move away from the fiction of self-regulation.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

Uncategorized

Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace

Published

on

Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

Continue Reading

Uncategorized

Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

Published

on

When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

Continue Reading

Uncategorized

UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

Published

on

E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

Continue Reading

Trending