Artificial intelligence and automation are two hot areas of investment right now. As most of the workforce seemingly shifted to a remote workforce, the need for automation, technology, and tools has never been greater. As such, these topics are of increasing interest to venture capitalists. The AI Today podcast had the chance to talk to Oliver Mitchell, a Founding Partner of Autonomy Ventures. (disclosure: I’m a co-host of the AI Today podcast).
For over 20 years Oliver has been working on technology startups and in the past decade he has been working on investing in automation. He spoke with us about seeing the big changes that are coming to the world with automation and the exciting possibilities that it still has to offer. His current company Autonomy Ventures is an early stage venture capital firm that looks to invest in automation and robotics.
AI in different industries
Despite the fact that the term Artificial Intelligence has been around for decades, there is still no commonly accepted definition. Because of this, artificial intelligence means something different to every industry. While some industries may be focused on how artificial intelligence can better help them manage funds, another industry might be more interested in how AI can supplement their human workforce. The various different tasks that artificial intelligence can help with is something that investors need to look at when making their investments.
Out of all of the investments that Oliver has made over the years, the best ones have been with companies that really focus on solving specific problems in an industry. He talked about one of his investments, a carbon robotic arm from Carbon Robotics that is used in mid-tier manufacturing. The carbon robotics arm is a low-cost arm that can work alongside employees. To make the arm easier to use it has AI onboard and a suite of tools to enable anyone to operate the arm without technological training.
With this arm, companies don’t need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire specialists to train their robotic arms. Rather, the arm can be taught through movement how to carry out tasks through an iPad or similar device. This arm falls under the category of collaborative robots, or cobots for short, that are able to work side by side with humans.
One of the things about Carbon Robotics that Oliver made sure to point out was that while the company produces hardware, the secret to that hardware working so well is the software. He looks for investments where the software is the secret to hardware working so powerfully.
Aurora Labs is another company that Oliver invests in. Like about half of the investments that Autonomy Ventures makes, Aurora Labs is based out of Israel. The company focuses on providing a software platform for autonomous and connected cars to monitor their onboard software. Aurora Labs calls their software a “self-healing software for connected cars.”
Your average car needs to go to a dealership in order to receive any kind of firmware or software update if an issue is detected. This is because the technician needs to plug a device into the OBDII port of the car. Due to limited power in the chips in most current cars, they aren’t able to access the cloud. Even those cars that have OnStar onboard have very limited connectivity. Self-healing software for connected cars from Aurora Labs allows cars to connect to the cloud so that they can receive updates over the air.
Not only will this protect consumer’s investments by allowing them to stay safe over a remote connection but it will help car companies too. One of the biggest costs of a recall is having cars to return to shop just to plug a device in to update software. No longer will that have to be done with the help of Aurora Labs’ software.
Companies like the ones mentioned above are the types of companies that Oliver and Autonomy Ventures look to invest in. These companies are on the forefront of AI and connected technology. Both companies also address a specific concern or need in an industry. One that doesn’t have a current alternative. Each option is also tied to the revenue of a company, so it attracts companies to the products.
Keeping AI in check
Something important that Oliver addressed is the view and aims of AI. A lot of people have the science fiction viewpoint on artificial intelligence. We need to manage our expectations on AI because there are many tasks that AI still can’t do that even a child can. One example Oliver uses is the ability to tie a shoe. While a 7-year-old has been able to tie shoes for years, robots still cannot tie a shoe. We need to be able to address everyday problems before we can start to move on to what we see in movies.
Bias in AI and machine learning is also something that needs to be acknowledged and is a big issue in the automated technology world. Software around the world is used to help humans but so many of us are quick to turn to technology without a chance to review it. A lot of technology has bias built in it without us knowing. A recent example that has been used often is a criminal justice software used to rate an offender’s likelihood of reoffending. Once the software was deployed in multiple states it was found that it rated people of color more likely to reoffend.
Olivia also points out bias in a type of technology that is used in emergency departments around the world to analyze patients. The software looks at a patient’s chief complaint, symptoms, and medical history along with demographics and gives the medical staff a recommendation about what to do. However, this software has been found to not take into account the human aspect of medical care. It will make a decision based on a perceived likelihood of effective treatment, not on saving every life possible.
However, even with some of the issues it has, AI and automation are very useful technologies that continue to push the boundary of what’s possible, especially in our increasingly remote and virtual world. It should be no surprise then that VCs will continue to look to invest in these types of companies as they push forward what’s possible.