It recognizes our faces. It knows the videos we might like. And it can even, perhaps, recommend the best course of action to take to maximize our personal health.
Artificial intelligence and its subset of disciplines—such as machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision—are seemingly becoming integrated into our daily lives whether we like it or not. What was once sci-fi is now ubiquitous research and development in company and university labs around the world.
Similarly, the startups working on many of these AI technologies have seen their proverbial stock rise. More than 30 of these companies are now valued at over a billion dollars, according to data research firm CB Insights, which itself employs algorithms to provide insights into the tech business world.
Private companies with a billion-dollar valuation were so uncommon not that long ago that they were dubbed unicorns. Now there are 325 of these once-rare creatures, with a combined valuation north of a trillion dollars, as CB Insights maintains a running count of this exclusive Unicorn Club.
The subset of AI startups accounts for about 10 percent of the total membership, growing rapidly in just 4 years from 0 to 32. Last year, an unprecedented 17 AI startups broke the billion-dollar barrier, with 2018 also a record year for venture capital into private US AI companies at $9.3 billion, CB Insights reported.
What exactly is all this money funding?
AI Keeps an Eye Out for You
Let’s start with the bad news first.
Facial recognition is probably one of the most ubiquitous applications of AI today. It’s actually a decades-old technology often credited to a man named Woodrow Bledsoe, who used an instrument called a RAND tablet that could semi-autonomously match faces from a database. That was in the 1960s.
Today, most of us are familiar with facial recognition as a way to unlock our smartphones. But the technology has gained notoriety as a surveillance tool of law enforcement, particularly in China.
It’s no secret that the facial recognition algorithms developed by several of the AI unicorns from China—SenseTime, CloudWalk, and Face++ (also known as Megvii)—are used to monitor the country’s 1.3 billion citizens. Police there are even equipped with AI-powered eyeglasses for such purposes.
A fourth billion-dollar Chinese startup, Yitu Technologies, also produces a platform for facial recognition in the security realm, and develops AI systems in healthcare on top of that. For example, its CARE.AITM Intelligent 4D Imaging System for Chest CT can reputedly identify in real time a variety of lesions for the possible early detection of cancer.
The AI Doctor Is In
As Peter Diamandis recently noted, AI is rapidly augmenting healthcare and longevity. He mentioned another AI unicorn from China in this regard—iCarbonX, which plans to use machines to develop personalized health plans for every individual.
A couple of AI unicorns on the hardware side of healthcare are OrCam Technologies and Butterfly. The former, an Israeli company, has developed a wearable device for the vision impaired called MyEye that attaches to one’s eyeglasses. The device can identify people and products, as well as read text, conveying the information through discrete audio.
Butterfly Network, out of Connecticut, has completely upended the healthcare market with a handheld ultrasound machine that works with a smartphone.
“Orcam and Butterfly are amazing examples of how machine learning can be integrated into solutions that provide a step-function improvement over state of the art in ultra-competitive markets,” noted Andrew Byrnes, investment director at Comet Labs, a venture capital firm focused on AI and robotics, in an email exchange with Singularity Hub.
AI in the Driver’s Seat
Comet Labs’ portfolio includes two AI unicorns, Megvii and Pony.ai.
The latter is one of three billion-dollar startups developing the AI technology behind self-driving cars, with the other two being Momenta.ai and Zoox.
Founded in 2016 near San Francisco (with another headquarters in China), Pony.ai debuted its latest self-driving system, called PonyAlpha, last year. The platform uses multiple sensors (LiDAR, cameras, and radar) to navigate its environment, but its “sensor fusion technology” makes things simple by choosing the most reliable sensor data for any given driving scenario.
Zoox is another San Francisco area startup founded a couple of years earlier. In late 2018, it got the green light from the state of California to be the first autonomous vehicle company to transport a passenger as part of a pilot program. Meanwhile, China-based Momenta.ai is testing level four autonomy for its self-driving system. Autonomous driving levels are ranked zero to five, with level five being equal to a human behind the wheel.
The hype around autonomous driving is currently in overdrive, and Byrnes thinks regulatory roadblocks will keep most self-driving cars in idle for the foreseeable future. The exception, he said, is China, which is adopting a “systems” approach to autonomy for passenger transport.
“If [autonomous mobility] solves bigger problems like traffic that can elicit government backing, then that has the potential to go big fast,” he said. “This is why we believe Pony.ai will be a winner in the space.”
AI in the Back Office
An AI-powered technology that perhaps only fans of the cult classic Office Space might appreciate has suddenly taken the business world by storm—robotic process automation (RPA).
RPA companies take the mundane back office work, such as filling out invoices or processing insurance claims, and turn it over to bots. The intelligent part comes into play because these bots can tackle unstructured data, such as text in an email or even video and pictures, in order to accomplish an increasing variety of tasks.
Both Automation Anywhere and UiPath are older companies, founded in 2003 and 2005, respectively. However, since just 2017, they have raised nearly a combined $1 billion in disclosed capital.
Cybersecurity Embraces AI
Cybersecurity is another industry where AI is driving investment into startups. Sporting imposing names like CrowdStrike, Darktrace, and Tanium, these cybersecurity companies employ different machine-learning techniques to protect computers and other IT assets beyond the latest software update or virus scan.
Darktrace, for instance, takes its inspiration from the human immune system. Its algorithms can purportedly “learn” the unique pattern of each device and user on a network, detecting emerging problems before things spin out of control.
All three companies are used by major corporations and governments around the world. CrowdStrike itself made headlines a few years ago when it linked the hacking of the Democratic National Committee email servers to the Russian government.
I could go on, and introduce you to the world’s most valuable startup, a Chinese company called Bytedance that is valued at $75 billion for news curation and an app to create 15-second viral videos. But that’s probably not where VC firms like Comet Labs are generally putting their money.
Byrnes sees real value in startups that are taking “data-driven approaches to problems specific to unique industries.” Take the example of Chicago-based unicorn Uptake Technologies, which analyzes incoming data from machines, from wind turbines to tractors, to predict problems before they occur with the machinery. A not-yet unicorn called PingThings in the Comet Labs portfolio does similar predictive analytics for the energy utilities sector.
“One question we like asking is, ‘What does the state of the art look like in your industry in three to five years?’” Byrnes said. “We ask that a lot, then we go out and find the technology-focused teams building those things.”
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