In the last few years, gradually, and despite lamentations from the old guard, the world has started to accept the reality of a new economy.
It’s the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” “The Data Economy”, the “Information Age,” or a “Digital Epoch”.
Whatever nomenclature one denotes the phenomenon, it is clear that it is here to stay. What is clearer, at least to Charlie Muirhead and Tabitha Goldstaub, is that for the UK to stay ahead of the curve, there is absolutely no time to waste in adapting to Artificial Intelligence.
“I’ve spent 20 years building tech companies,” says Muirhead, a serial entrepreneur who has founded a menagerie of distinguished firms, starting when he was just 18. “It’s absolutely my passion, I love doing it, and two years ago, we were thinking: ‘what’s the next opportunity to focus on?’ We wanted to make a contribution – something not to make money.”
No doubt someone, someday, will write a book about his ventures, but today we’re talking about CognitionX.
Muirhead and Goldstaub (which as I type, sounds like a seventies crime-fighting duo), have worked together for the last decade, primarily on video distribution platform Rightster. Their latest endeavour, however, is a totally fresh crusade.
“There was a lot of excitement about using data science, as it was more often called then, and machine learning, to improve what we were doing – but it was still incredibly difficult”, says Muirhead.
Regardless of combined decades of expertise, when trying to answer a myriad of questions – trying to understand what technology was available – the pair found themselves ill-equipped. “So we hired some data scientists, and frankly, they were ill-equipped as well, because the data scientist isn’t necessarily the person to build the infrastructure. So we got a pretty clear picture, that, not only is this going to change everything, but also, it’s a complex space, even for people who understand technology. It’s incredibly fast-paced, and it’s increasingly fragmented.”
Realising the immense potential of AI was matched only by the lack of understanding (even from those who work in the field), the pair took on the mission of providing clarity. Their aim is that businesses of every size and scope will be able to find ways to integrate technologies that will make them more efficient, and better equipped for the future.
“We decided very early on that the only way to achieve this was by building a platform which would be free to access. And that’s for anybody, whether a school kid trying to figure out what AI means for the future, or a politician, or a chief executive. Anyone can access a really well-organised knowledge base effectively, about everything going on in AI, in one place.”
CognitionX, the platform, is the first component of the pair’s ambitions. The second, CogX, is an event, running this week, that Muirhead calls “an innovation exchange,” where people are convening to discuss what’s going on, and how to move the conversation forward.
I tell them that’s a good job, because it’s quite hard to pin down exactly what AI actually is – most of us have grandiose Hollywood illusions of world-ending automatons. “I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer here,” says Muirhead. “But we chose to approach AI as a very broad umbrella, that sits across everything from basic decision trees – which are deterministic ways of getting automation to take effect – all the way to deep learning and general intelligence as a spectrum.
“There are hundreds of different things along the way, and it’s not that one thing is better than the other – there’s horses for courses – some are a better fit for different problems.”
To my point about Hollywood illusions, Goldstaub adds that the media has a role to play in the way it presents AI. She says that we tend to pick images that conjure up fear of technology. “I think it’s a struggle, and no wonder that, for instance, when people hear about Deepmind and the NHS, they come up these quite Terminator-style images, rather than seeing the positives of living longer, healthier, better quality lives. I think there’s a job to be done, and I think we can play some part in educating people that this is a good thing for them.”
Both are adamant that the possibilities of AI are endless, and that the changes it’s going to enable are going to be mind-blowing, altering the face of humanity. “But the discussion often gets railroaded into one around utopia/ dystopia, and the future – and actually that’s not very helpful,” says Muirhead.
To combat the future gazing of many, Muirhead says we must split the conversation into two distinct paths. One is the 50 year view – “the path, potentially to some kind of general intelligence, which is an AI that can solve all of our problems.” But we’re nowhere near that day, and so the pair insist, the discussion should be parked at the back of our collective conscience.
“There are fundamental breakthroughs that are required around machine learning and AI before we get there, that haven’t been solved. And no one really knows how long that’s going to take.”
Far more pressing, they say, is the one-to-three year view – capitalising on the short term to grasp opportunities that will lead to general intelligence. “There are some really complicated issues we need to deal with as a society, because we’re charging down the tracks with that. And it’s probably impossible to slow it down, because of capitalism and free markets, and you wouldn’t want to. But the point is, that all of the decisions and policies that we need to develop – and therefore what research we need to do to inform those policies – needs to happen in the next 12 months, not even the next three years.”
Both agree that ensuring fair access to the benefits of the technology and even distribution of the economic benefits is paramount. Quite how that will be achieved is as yet uncertain, but Goldstaub has been meeting with business and ministers to make her case.
“An MP’s job is to look after their constituency, and with AI, they’re not able to do that yet. So we need both educate the constituents to ask, and the politicians to be educated to then answer. So we’re spending as much time as we can with those MPs, and in some cases it’s a new guard. They have a role, but what role? I think that needs to be decided over the next few months. It’s not years, it’s literally like, come on, let’s do this. I think they’re listening though.”
CogX runs from 19-21 June.