I’ve been laser-focused on machine intelligence in the past few years. I’ve talked to hundreds of entrepreneurs, researchers and investors about helping machines make us smarter.
In the months since I shared my landscape of machine intelligence companies, folks keep asking me what I think of them — as if they’re all doing more or less the same thing. (I’m guessing this is how people talked about “dot coms” in 1997.)
On average, people seem most concerned about how to interact with these technologies once they are out in the wild. This post will focus on how these companies go to market, not on the methods they use.
In an attempt to explain the differences between how these companies go to market, I found myself using (admittedly colorful) nicknames. It ended up being useful, so I took a moment to spell them out in more detail so, in case you run into one or need a handy way to describe yours, you have the vernacular.
The categories aren’t airtight — this is a complex space — but this framework helps our fund (which invests in companies that make work better) be more thoughtful about how we think about and interact with machine intelligence companies.
“Panopticons” Collect A Broad Dataset
Machine intelligence starts with the data computers analyze, so the companies I call “panopticons” are assembling enormous, important new datasets. Defensible businesses tend to be global in nature. “Global” is very literal in the case of a company like Planet Labs, which has satellites physically orbiting the earth. Or it’s more metaphorical, in the case of a company like Premise, which is crowdsourcing data from many countries.
With many of these new datasets we can automatically get answers to questions we have struggled to answer before. There are massive barriers to entry because it’s difficult to amass a global dataset of significance.
Machine intelligence is a very active space.
However, it’s important to ask whether there is a “good enough” dataset that might provide a cheaper alternative, since data license businesses are at risk of being commoditized. Companies approaching this space should feel confident that either (1) no one else can or will collect a “good enough” alternative, or (2) they can successfully capture the intelligence layer on top of their own dataset and own the end user.
Examples include Planet Labs, Premise and Diffbot.
“Lasers” Collect A Focused Dataset
The companies I like to call “lasers” are also building new datasets, but in niches, to solve industry-specific problems with laser-like focus. Successful companies in this space provide more than just the dataset — they also must own the algorithms and user interface. They focus on narrower initial uses and must provide more value than just data to win customers.
The products immediately help users answer specific questions like, “how much should I water my crops?” or “which applicants are eligible for loans?” This category may spawn many, many companies — a hundred or more — because companies in it can produce business value right away.
With these technologies, many industries will be able to make decisions in a data-driven way for the first time. The power for good here is enormous: We’ve seen these technologies help us feed the world more efficiently, improve medical diagnostics, aid in conservation projects and provide credit to those in the world that didn’t have access to it before.
But to succeed, these companies need to find a single “killer” (meant in the benevolent way) use case to solve, and solve that problem in a way that makes the user’s life simpler, not more complex.
Examples include Tule Technologies, Enlitic, InVenture, Conservation Metrics, Red Bird, Mavrx and Watson Health.
“Alchemists” Promise To Turn Your Data Into Gold
These companies have a simple pitch: Let me work with your data, and I will return gold. Rather than creating their own datasets, they use novel algorithms to enrich and draw insights from their customers’ data. They come in three forms:
- Self-service API-based solutions.
- Service providers who work on top of their customers’ existing stacks.
- Full-stack solutions that deliver their own hardware-optimized stacks.
Because the alchemists see across an array of data types, they’re likely to get early insight into powerful applications of machine intelligence. If they go directly to customers to solve problems in a hands-on way (i.e., with consulting services), they often become trusted partners.
Let me work with your data, and I will return gold.
But be careful. This industry is nascent, and those using an API-based approach may struggle to scale as revenue sources can only go as far as the still-small user base. Many of the self-service companies have moved toward a more hands-on model to address this problem (and those people-heavy consulting services can sometimes be harder to scale).
Examples include Nervana Systems, Context Relevant, IBM Watson, Metamind, AlchemyAPI (acquired by IBM Watson), Skymind, Lucid.ai and Citrine.
“Gateways” Create New Use Cases From Specific Data Types
These companies allow enterprises to unlock insights from a type of data they had trouble dealing with before (e.g., image, audio, video, genomic data). They don’t collect their own data, but rather work with client data and/or a third-party data provider. Unlike the Alchemists, who tend to do analysis across an array of data types and use cases, these are specialists.
What’s most exciting here is that this is genuinely new intelligence. Enterprises have generally had this data, but they either weren’t storing it or didn’t have the ability to interpret it economically. All of that “lost” data can now be used.
Still, beware the “so what” problem. Just because we have the methods to extract new insights doesn’t make them valuable. We’ve seen companies that begin with the problem they want to solve, and others blinded by the magic of the method. The latter category struggles to get funding.
Examples include Clarifai, Gridspace, Orbital Insight, Descartes Labs, Deep Genomics and Atomwise.
“Magic Wands” Seamlessly Fix A Workflow
These are SaaS tools that make work more effective, not just by extracting insights from the data you provide but by seamlessly integrating those insights into your daily workflow, creating a level of machine intelligence assistance that feels like “magic.” They are similar to the Lasers in that they have an interface that helps the user solve a specific problem — but they tend to rely on a user’s or enterprise’s data rather than creating their own new dataset from scratch.
For example, Textio is a text editor that recommends improvements to job descriptions as you type. With it, I can go from a 40th percentile job description to a 90th percentile one in just a few minutes, all thanks to a beautifully presented machine learning algorithm.
The risk is that by relying on such tools, humans will lose expertise.
I believe that in five years we all will be using these tools across different use cases. They make the user look like an instant expert by codifying lessons found in domain-specific data. They can aggregate intelligence and silently bake it into products. We expect this space to heat up, and can’t wait to see more Magic Wands.
The risk is that by relying on such tools, humans will lose expertise (in the same way that the autopilot created the risk that pilots’ core skills may decay). To offset this, makers of these products should create UI in a way that will actually fortify the user’s knowledge rather than replace it (e.g., educating the user during the process of making a recommendation or using a double-blind interface).
Examples include Textio, RelateIQ (acquired by Salesforce), InboxVudu, Sigopt and The Grid
“Navigators” Create Autonomous Systems For The Physical World
Machine intelligence plays a huge role in enabling autonomous systems like self-driving cars, drones and robots to augment processes in warehouses, agriculture and elderly care. This category is a mix of early stage companies and large established companies like Google, Apple, Uber and Amazon.
Such technologies give us the ability to rethink transportation and logistics entirely, especially in emerging market countries that lack robust physical infrastructure. We also can use them to complete tasks that were historically very dangerous for humans.
Before committing to this kind of technology, companies should feel confident that they can raise large amounts of capital and recruit the best minds in some of the most sought-after fields. Many of these problems require experts across varied specialties, like hardware, robotics, vision and audio. They also will have to deal with steep regulatory hurdles (e.g., self-driving car regulations).
Examples include Blue River Technologies, Airware, Clearpath Robotics, Kiva Systems (acquired by Amazon), 3DR, Skycatch, Cruise Automation and the self-driving car groups at Google, Uber, Apple and Tesla.
“Agents” Create Cyborgs And Bots To Help With Virtual Tasks
Sometimes the best way to use machine intelligence is to pair it with human intelligence. Cyborgs and bots are similar in that they help you complete tasks, but the difference is a cyborg appears as if it’s a human (it blends human and machine intelligence behind the scenes, has a proper name and attempts to interact like a person would), whereas a bot is explicitly non-human and relies on you to provide the human-level guidance to instruct it what to do.
Sometimes the best way to use machine intelligence is to pair it with human intelligence.
Cyborgs most often complete complex tasks, like customer service via real-time chat or meeting scheduling via email (e.g., Clara from Clara Labs or Amy from x.ai). Bots tend to help you perform basic research, complete online transactions and help your team stay on top of tasks (e.g., Howdy, the project management bot).
In both cases, this is the perfect blending of humans and machines: The computers take the transactional grunt work pieces of the task and interact with us for the higher-level decision-making and creativity.
Cyborg-based companies start as mostly manual services and, over time, become more machine-driven as technology matures. The risk is whether they can make that transition quickly enough. For both cyborgs and bots, privacy and security will be an ongoing concern, as we trust more and more of our data (e.g., calendars, email, documents, credit cards) to them.
Examples include Clara, x.ai, Facebook M, Digital Genius, Kasisto and Howdy.
“Pioneers” Are Very Smart
Some machine intelligence companies begin life as academic projects. When the teams — professors and graduate students with years of experience in the field — discover they have something marketable, they (or their universities) spin them out into companies.
These teams are the ones solving the problems that seem impossible.
Aggregating a team like that is, in itself, a viable market strategy, because there are so few people with 8-10 years of experience in this field. Their brains are so valuable that investors are willing to take the risk on the basis of the team alone — even if the business models still need some work.
In fact, there are many extremely important problems to solve that don’t line up with short-term use cases. These teams are the ones solving the problems that seem impossible, and they are among the few who can potentially make them possible!
This approach can work brilliantly if the team has a problem they are truly devoted to working on, but it is tough to keep the team together if they are banding together for the sake of solidarity and the prospect of an acqui-hire. They also need funders who are aligned with their longer-term vision.
As you can see, it’s clear that machine intelligence is a very active space. There are many companies out there that may not fit into one of these categories, but these are the ones we see most often.
The obvious question for all of these categories is which are most attractive for investment? Individual startups are outliers by definition, so it’s hard to make it black and white, and we’re so excited about this space that it’s really just different degrees of optimism. That said, I’m particularly excited about the Lasers and Magic Wands, because they can turn new types of data into actionable intelligence right now, and because they can take advantage of well-worn SaaS techniques.
More on these to come. Stay tuned.