Start-up of the Day: Vialytics quickly registers road conditions

How do self-driving cars handle potholes on the road? As just stay driving ahead or spontaneously around them aren’t an option. You have to take the bull by the horns, that’s what the founders of vialytics were thinking. They designed a system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to map out road conditions. This is how the road authorities can deal with the problems as quickly as possible. Danilo Jovicic, who founded the start-up together with Achim Hoth and Patrick Glaser, explains how the system works.

The founders of vialytics GmbH, (from left to right) Achim Hoth, Patrick Glaser, Danilo Jovicic ©vialytics

How did you come up with the idea of setting up vialytics?

We wanted to do business as an independent company and set up our own start-up. We got to know each other through the Activatr and Pioniergeist start-up programs. It was by coincidence that we then got together in a small group. That’s where the idea of doing something with road management took shape. We came up with a lot of wild ideas for a couple of weeks. We also had a lot of contact with municipalities who told us about problems concerning road management. The overarching issue there was autonomous traffic. We thought carefully about what you need to do in order to be able to drive safely autonomously. That invariably comes down to good roads.

What does your product look like?

Municipalities can continuously monitor their streets with our system. This is done with the help of a modified smartphone mounted on the windscreen of a municipal service vehicle. On a sweeper, for instance. These are at any rate always out and about in the city. The smartphone records the road every 4 meters.

This data is subsequently sent to us. It is then analyzed using an algorithm. Any damage to the road is automatically detected this way. The municipalities get the data back again in the form of a dynamic map. As they are better informed about the condition of the roads, they can react more quickly to any damage. This leads to a more sustainable and efficient way of road management. After all, plenty of municipalities don’t address the maintenance of their streets until it is far too late. Which means that the costs are also much higher. Current systems do not offer a proper solution. Those recordings are actually made with too great a time frame between each other. Nor are they carried out systematically.

Was there a problem you had to resolve first?

It was particularly difficult in the beginning to gain the trust of municipalities. This was mainly due to the fact that municipalities rarely cooperate with start-ups here. We set up 5 pilot projects where our system was tested. Thanks to the positive reactions we received, we have now managed to build up a customer base of 50 municipalities throughout Germany. Currently, we are also in contact with cities in other countries who are interested in our product.

What are you especially proud of?

We are especially proud of our first customers who have dispelled any preconceptions that local councils are a bit stuffy. Some of them were so enthusiastic about our solution that they bought the system before it had even been fully developed. Of course, we are also very proud of our team, which has expanded considerably over the last 6 months. Our employees are busy developing the product on a daily basis.

©vialytics

What does the future of vialytics look like?

Our goal is that of internationalization. We want road authorities all over the world to be able to maintain their road networks in an efficient and sustainable manner. Apart from that, we will continue to work on improving things so that we can keep on responding to the requests of our customers.

What tips do you have for other starters?

Do you have a good idea? Jump into the deep end and dare to make your dreams come true. And for those who have already set up a company: at some stage, take each employee along with you to a client. That’s what you’ll learn the most from.

More articles on start-ups can be found here.

 

Best read: are algorithms taking over our shopping decisions?

Grown-up women rolling around on the floor like sumo wrestlers for cut-price clothing. Shoved and yanked everywhere and huge queues at the cash registers. Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving when Americans are already getting their Christmas shopping done with major discounts. This chaos is shifting increasingly more from shops to the internet. The Monday after Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday, encourages consumers to shop online. They’re already spending much more online than in a real store.

Eveline van Zeeland, columnist at IO, has also noted this trend. In last week’s best read story she talks about the advance of robotized consumerism. More and more purchases in the future will be made without human interaction. Van Zeeland writes that she is a fan of a society where human intelligence is supported by artificial intelligence if needed. Of course, you have to keep an eye on the ethical consequences. But it’s nonetheless a pretty cool trend, as you can read in her column.

Rens van der Vorst calls himself a technophilosopher and gives lectures and workshops about the impact of technology on society. He also wrote the book ‘Appen is het nieuwe roken’ (App-ing is the new smoking). He thinks we should think twice before entrusting our wallet to an algorithm: “It’s a recurring issue that we haven’t found an answer to as yet. What are values are at the core? Yours or those of the technology companies?”

Automating purchases

Ask Alexa or another smart speaker to order pizza and that’s what happens. “Very handy, the algorithm selects one for you from all of the pizza delivery services. Whereas if you place an order on your laptop, you have a wider choice and are much freer. We are increasingly leaving that choice in the hands of tech companies. In the future, an algorithm will already know what you want and your food will be ready for you when you’re hungry. That’s no longer such a weird idea.”

Van der Vorst also sees the dilemma: “See, recurring purchases such as coffee, toilet paper and things like that can best be left to an algorithm. That would be pretty straightforward if it’s done automatically. These infrastructures are already in place. Look at home delivery, and various supermarkets are also working on that. But this does mean that you give up privacy: you let an algorithm view what you’re buying. In return, you get the benefits of convenience. The question always remains how much privacy are you willing to give up. The closer such an algorithm is to you as a person, the better the assumptions and recommendations will be. But is that something we really should want?”

It’s all about the money

According to Van Der Vorst, consumers hardly have a proper look at the revenue model whereby user data is used as a means of payment. “That mindset is wrong. The data we generate is the raw material used by the Googles of this world by which they make predictions. And the more data they have from you, the better those predictions become. They earn their money from this because these predictions go to the highest bidder. This leads to social deprivation,” he explains. Because those highest bidders are not the supermarket on the corner, but companies with deep pockets and good SEO. “This principle is strictly about making money. Those Google machines are not programmed to support, but to sell. The way things are going now, you can count on it being a case of only the big players staying in the game, the winner takes all.

Worldview in code

This is also a trend that Suzanna Zuboff has outlined in her book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism‘. Zuboff states that we are slaves to the data economy and that tech companies do everything in their power to model our behavior in order to make money from it. Van Der Vorst summarized the book: “A big fat book that you can barely get through, but it does contain an incredible amount of interesting information that everyone ought to know. Whether it will be as dystopian as she writes, I dare not say. But we are increasingly handing over our choices to algorithms.”

More on Zuboff’s book here

Airbnb, Uber and Tinder are all examples of how we let ourselves be supported by algorithms, all in the name of convenience. “But you know what I really don’t like about these kinds of platforms,” says Van der Vorst. “I just don’t know what’s behind them. It’s a type of worldview in code. I am not familiar with that vision and I certainly don’t know how it works. Is it inclusive? Does it work honestly? When you try to gain insight into how this mechanism works, you don’t get to see it at as it’s considered business-sensitive information. Nobody knows exactly how it works. The discussion about comprehensible AI is absolutely justified. But sometimes I wonder if we actually want that. The less we know, the more we seem to rely on algorithms.”

Does this make us less sociable as people? “Automating chores such as shopping gives you more time to spend with your family or do something with friends. But we’re increasingly caught up in a tech worldview shaped by socially awkward white men. Talking to someone in real life is exciting, so romance and love are automated via Tinder. But on the other hand: how many social interactions do you actually have in a supermarket?”

Tomorrow is good: Human beings, machines with emotions?

Computers are good at abstract thinking; we are all too keen to delegate complex calculations to them in order to free ourselves from that chore. There is something threatening about the intelligence of machines too. Robots and synthetic or artificial intelligence (AI) force us to question our place in the world. What does it mean to be human? Where does the boundary lie between man and machine? What is man? – enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant pondered. Our moral views on in vitro fertilization (IVF) have evolved considerably over the past decades. Even to the extent that many people would find it unacceptable to refuse a couple who is eligible (within certain rules, such as age) to go through with an IVF procedure in the Netherlands or Belgium.  Reference is then made in this context to techno-moral change: modifying moral beliefs as a consequence of technology.

Die as a cyborg

Machine and body will become more and more intertwined. Philosopher James Moor asserts that we are born today as human beings, but that many of us will die as cyborgs. Cyborg stands for ‘cybernetic organism’. As in, partly human, partly computer. Moor’s claims are justified, even though cyborg may sound like science fiction. A good example is the pacemaker which is in fact a miniature computer. Moreover, there are pacemakers that are connected to the internet. There are bionic limbs too, such as a bionic arm for disabled veterans or people with congenital disabilities. As well as exoskeletons for patients with full paraplegia.

For example, knee or hip prostheses are implants in the body, which we have been familiar with for some time already. These are not computerized technologies. Still, our human dignity and integrity have not been altered by them. We have over time accepted these implants without any problems. Even further developments, as yet unknown to us, may amount to a broader sense of human dignity. Consequently, we should not be ‘automatically’ opposed to them.

Thanks to science and technology, human beings have been improving for centuries. And the results are clearly apparent, because we are living longer and healthier lives. The debate must now focus on ethical boundaries and problems – what is desirable? And also – what kind of cyborgs do we want to be? For example, AI implants should not only be accessible to the happy few who can afford them, which invariably means that only they can enjoy the benefits. The principle of justice is important for ensuring fair, democratic access to technology. Damage or risk of harm to the patient and third parties obviously needs to be curtailed.

Are we expendable?

How unique is humankind? Are we replaceable by robots and AI systems? AI researcher Rodney Brooks thinks we should rid ourselves of the idea that we are special. We, people, are ‘just’ machines with emotions. Not only are we able to build computers that recognize emotions, but eventually we could also build emotions into them. According to him, it will at some point even be possible to design a computer with real emotions and a state of consciousness. But he also remains rather cautious and avoids making statements about when that is going to happen. That is a wise decision, because the brain is extraordinarily complex. There is still not enough known about its specific workings or the very long evolution that preceded it. Least of all about being able to replicate it just like that.

 

Start-up of the Day: Skinive develops AI-powered app for skin self-examination

Skinive is an AI-technology for Skin Health Self-Examination. Users upload photos of skin areas with suspicious spots, moles or rash into the app, Skinive algorithms examine the image and make an instant diagnosis. Skinive can detect signs of numerous skin diseases such as pre-cancerous moles and skin cancer, papillomavirus, rosacea and others.

Start-up Skinive began life as AI Skin Health Self-Examination service in 2018 in Belarus. Since then Skinive AI has been continuously learning from medical doctors’ input and countless images and descriptions of skin diseases. Recently the company from Belarus has become a finalist of Rockstart AI Accelerator program in the Netherlands.

Innovation Origins has spoken with Kirill Atstarov, the founder of Skinive, about highlights and challenges that the start-up has experienced and about its business journey from Belarus to the international market.

What motivated you to start Skinive? How did it happen?

Our motivation was to create our own health self-examination product. At first, we wanted to create AI technology for diagnostics of some common diseases and prediction modelling. However, this would involve the use of X-rays or ultrasound images. For that reason, the applications of our technology required pilot projects with medical institutions, which was difficult to arrange in Belarus. That is why we restricted our scope to a skin health examination. In this way, we could bring our technology directly to the end-user – thanks to the fact that nowadays almost everyone has a smartphone. We started with the diagnostics of skin cancer. But soon we realized that the market already had enough of AI skin examination apps serving the same purpose, so we broadened the range of skin diseases that could be detected by our algorithms.

What kind of problems do you solve?

Our main motivation is to create a product that would allow many people to be healthy. Now people can have a quick skin examination with our app, get a result and if a (potentially) dangerous skin condition is found, users need to visit a doctor. However, we plan that in the future it would be possible to confirm the diagnosis with a doctor in the app – in the form of a telemedicine service. Two opinions – from the AI and a dermatologist – are especially useful to have if people are dealing with skin allergy.

What is the biggest obstacle that you needed/will need to overcome?

Our main problem was that medical doctors in Belarus were initially sceptical about our technology. In the beginning, we faced a lot of criticism. Some medical specialists did not understand how AI-based diagnostics worked, some people even called our technology health fraud.

When I came to the Netherlands for the Rockstart program, I visited Nijmegen and met medical doctors who are specialized in diagnostics with the usage of neural networks and AI. That was a pleasant surprise!

What is the difference between Skinive and other skin self-examination apps? 

Most of the existing skin examination apps focus on diagnostics of skin cancer. With our AI algorithms and we can detect and identify not only skin cancer but about thirty other skin conditions. Skin cancer is undoubtedly a dangerous disease, but it is not the most common skin problem. Most frequently people suffer from acne or viral infections, and we want to help those people.

Skinive at work © Skinive

Do you receive support from the government of Belarus?

The activity of Skinive and similar start-ups has attracted the attention of the Belarusian government. So, at the beginning of October there was a round table in Minks with the Minister of Health and the administration of Belarussian main technology hub – Hi-tech Park. They were discussing the new ways of cooperation between medical specialists and software companies like Skinive. As a result, they came up with a program that makes IT and healthcare cooperation more convenient both sides. It is an important step for the industry. Previously medical doctors could only work with IT-companies as private individuals in their free time – not as employees of a hospital.

Are there accomplishments that made you proud of your work?

The accomplishment we are most proud of is the first life that we have saved with our app! That happened during an international IT-conference EMERGE in Minsk. We were demonstrating what we do as a start-up to the visitors. We were letting them try out our application and examine moles, spots and rash they were concerned about. One of the visitors took the test and received a “potential threat” result for a mole on his face. We helped this person to arrange a visit to a dermatologist and oncologist in Minsk. They confirmed the diagnosis – the early stage of skin cancer – and directed him to the surgical removal of this life-threatening mole. After that case we received lots of attention in media, many people started using our service and the Belarusian Ministry of health offered us support. So that was a breakthrough for Skinive.

What can we expect from you in the near future?

We are going to become residents of the High-Tech Park in Minsk – the “Silicon Valley” of Belarus. Skinive has finished the Rockstart AI-track and with their help, we are setting up Skinive in the Netherlands. The company is going to start working in the European market. However, we are planning to leave RnD centre in Belarus.

s long as the software development concerned, we are planning to create an educational smartphone app for medical doctors and all the people who want to learn more about their skin.

What is the ultimate goal of Skinive?

We want to create a technology that enables people to diagnose different skin conditions in their early stages – a personal tool for skin health monitoring.

EU Commissioner Vestager to present new AI law at the start of 2020

Over the next three months, European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will draft a new European law for AI. As of December, she will be responsible for the digitization of the European market. She plans to present her new AI law in March. After that, the European Parliament and the governments and parliaments of the Member States will have to approve her new AI law.

The new AI law is to lay out the rules regarding the collection and sharing of data by, among others, the large American tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google whose internet platforms are being used on a massive scale by European citizens. At the moment there is only a guideline for e-privacy and one set of regulations for data protection (GDPR). The new law must include rules that make the collectors and distributors of data liable for any abuse use of this data.

Nightmare for the US

The greatest nightmare for the high profile big tech companies in the US is her intention to adopt new tax regulations following on from the new AI law. This should apply to internet platforms all over the world which make money from consumers in European countries. In recent years, Vestager has already taken Apple to court for tax evasion. She imposed a fine of 13 billion euros on them for this.

As far as she is concerned, the new tax regulations that she has in mind should be applicable worldwide. If she cannot do this because, for example, some countries do not want to cooperate, she said that the European Commission will continue to impose fines on non-European companies on an individual basis if they pay insufficient tax in the EU.

Breaking up Google and Facebook

She may also impose fines if American big tech companies abuse their dominant market position. She has done so in the past few years while she was European Commissioner for Competition. If these fines do not lead to an improvement in their behaviour on the European market, she wants to break up the American business conglomerates. That is what she said in response to questions from Paul Tang, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament. Tang is also member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on behalf of this PvdA party (the Dutch Labor Party). Vestager then told Tang that she had the means to do this. She did not specify what kind of means she has at her disposal.

Member of the European Parliament Paul Tang wants Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to break open American ‘big tech’ companies.

Gaining citizen’s trust

With its new European AI law, Vestager said they want to allay the fears of European citizens. In particular those who currently lack faith in the digitization of society. She says this is necessary as she believes there are two types of companies. The type that is digital – and the type that will soon become digital. In other words, sooner or later all citizens will have to participate in the digitization of everyday life, so she wants to make sure that the Internet is not intimidating to them.

In the second place, she wants AI to be used to make the citizens’ lives easier rather than more difficult. She wants to prevent digital platforms from collecting data via AI in order to influence the choice of consumers and businesses so that they can earn money from them. It was precisely for this reason that during her previous term as European Commissioner for Competition, she imposed a fine of 4.3 billion euros on the search engine Google.

More rules, less innovation?

The question is whether the new rules for AI will not stand in the way of innovation. Nicola Beer, an MEP from the Renew Group in the European Parliament, wanted to know whether Vestager had thought about how she intended to preserve Europe’s leading role in AI innovation. Vestager replied that she was looking for a more balanced situation. According to her, European citizens should benefit from the innovations that AI brings. Yet at the same time also be protected against their eventual misuse.

Europarliamentarian Nicola Beer wants to know how Vestager will ensure that the EU will remain a leader in the AI field.

Meanwhile, the initial reactions from the AI group of professionals to Vestager’s plans for new legislation have been quite reserved. “I find it a bit vague that Vestager says that AI sometimes makes life more difficult.” That’s what Buster Franken says, AI entrepreneur and developer from TU/e. “It is true that AI influences your choices via Google. But that can also make your life a lot easier.”

‘Small-scale AI companies in the EU are the victims’

Franken believes that there is a danger that a new law will burden smaller AI companies with far too many rules. “We already have a hard time finding capital to invest in our innovations. If new rules are added now, that will adversely affect us. It also means that you have extra work in order to comply with them. Maybe we don’t have the money for this. While this new law is supposed to combat abuse by large companies such as Google and Facebook.”

Read also: ‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

“The point is namely that companies like Google can abuse data because they have loads of money. If there is a new law, they will undoubtedly be able to comply with it. Then they will simply look for another route. They have enough money to hire an army of elite lawyers. Small AI companies don’t have that.”

Who owns AI-based works? The Law faces a challenge

Our copyright law is aimed at protecting works created by the human mind. But with the rise of artificial intelligence, products and ideas are increasingly the result (in part) of stand-alone algorithms. Lawyer Martin Hemmer wonders whether our legal system is fully prepared for this development.

What amount of human input is deemed necessary in order to be able to claim copyright? And who is the owner of a product that comes from an AI system? Hemmer, who works for the AKD law and notary firm, raises these questions in his lecture at the ‘Digital Dilemmas’ network event held by the IT company Atos in Eindhoven. As a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and IT, he sees signs that this will become a major issue in the coming years.

Rembrandt

Can the rules for human beings also apply to machines? As an example, Hemmer mentions the project ‘The Next Rembrandt,’ whereby artificial intelligence made a similar painting by itself on the basis of existing Rembrandt paintings. “Who is the rightful owner here? Is it the person who came up with the self-learning system? Or the person who threw in the data – or the commissioning party? Is there a copyright holder at all, and do we really think it is necessary for there to be protections in place for this? We don’t have an answer to these dilemmas as yet.”

The result of the algorithm. But who owns the copyright? Photo: ING

Human intervention

The subject was also on the agenda at the annual conference of the International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property (AIPPI) in September. Hemmer was there on behalf of the Netherlands to seek international agreement on the course of action for this issue. It was decided unanimously that copyright protection is unwelcome for work that has solely been generated by AI. There are two important conditions for eventual protection, Hemmer explains. “There has to be some human intervention and the originality of the work must be an obvious result of that.”

If you design software that can produce works of its own, then according to the AIPPI, that is still insufficient grounds for claiming copyright, the lawyer explains. “But if, for example, the results are actually selected by a human being, and these results lead to an original end result, copyright protections can be put in place.”

Patents

Hemmer is also anticipating a heated debate within patent law. “AI has long been used by pharmacists to find new applications for medicines. To put it bluntly, these findings are now being spit out by a computer. Is it still a matter of innovativeness as is the case in traditional patent law?”

“The bottom line is that AI is playing an increasingly important role in the generation of works and inventions,” Hemmer concludes. “The discussion that will take place in the courtroom in the coming decades is whether there has been sufficient human input.”

What is artificial intelligence? What can you do with it and what are the opportunities and risks involved? Buster Franken and Vincent Müller answer the most important questions in this IO video:

Read more IO articles on AI in our digital category here.

Best read: Navigate a busy city? Make self-driving cars more aggressive’

Trams, cats, colliding cyclists – they can make it pretty difficult for self-driving cars. Especially in a city like Amsterdam. Carlo van de Weijer, director of the recently opened Eindhoven Artificial Intelligence Systems Institute (EAISI), thinks that it will never work. Let autonomous vehicles drive through our busy main city? “That can’t be done,” according to Van de Weijer. That’s what came out of our best read article this week.

Still, that all sounds rather set in stone. Ten years ago, nobody would have predicted that we could transform leftovers into decorative edible tidbits with a 3D printer. Is a self-driving car in a city like Amsterdam really so inconceivable?

Just this past summer, a TU Delft research team presented a milestone for self-driving cars in cities. The researchers designed a system that analyses and predicts pedestrian behaviour. “It is a system that covers the entire processing chain, from vehicle perception, situation analysis and planning to control,” said lead researcher Dariu Gavrilla at the time.

At least another 30 years

In other words: a self-steering car that is able to predict whether a pedestrian will stay waiting patiently at a curb, or choose to cross the street. “We are one small step closer to being able to roll out autonomous driving effectively in a busy, urban setting,”,said Gavrilla. Would that mean self-driving cars will be lining the Amsterdam canals? Things won’t go that fast, Gavrilla also believes: “A car that can drive through a city and be as adaptable as a human driver – that’s going to take at least another thirty years,” he told the Dutch broadcast service NOS in August.

So, things will still be a long time coming, although it certainly doesn’t seem inconceivable. That’s how trend-watcher and Tesla driver Vincent Everts views it too. “I already use the autopilot function on 95 % of my trips,” he says. “Especially on the highway, but also in the city if the road is suitable enough.” The only condition is that the roads have to be clear. “I hardly ever use it on inner city streets, but there are no lanes there and things jut out all over the place,” Everts says. “The car is not at all ready for that yet.” But will it be possible someday?

Read moreBest read: Navigate a busy city? Make self-driving cars more aggressive’

Augmented Reality assists surgeons in the operating theater

Artificial intelligence is taking on more and more tasks in our modern world. For example, we use it every day when we use online search engines. Translation programs are unimaginable without AI, as are speech recognition, face recognition, computer games and, in the future, autonomous driving. In medicine, AI is also becoming more widespread and has already found its way into the operating theater. Just a few days ago, Innovation Origins wrote about operating with live 3D image navigation inside the body.

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has now gone one step further and has even been awarded the NEO 2019 Innovation Prize (worth €20,000) by the Karlsruhe TechnologyRegion for their ‘HoloMed’ system. The new system assists surgeons in the operating room via Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR). It does this by creating a model from computer tomographic images of the patient. These reveal the hidden structures deep inside the body.

GPS for the brain

HoloMed’s main focus is on cranial punctures. This is a procedure whereby accumulated fluid is removed from the brain in order to reduce pressure. Frequently used for e.g. brain hemorrhages, craniocerebral trauma and strokes. In order to determine the optimal point of insertion and alignment for the puncture, the surgeon must measure and glean data from “various anatomical landmarks” from computer tomography (CT) and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

“The difficulty lies in the fact that determining the angle of insertion only allows for a very small margin of error and the doctor isn’t able to see the target straightaway,” notes Professor Björn Hein. He oversees the project together with Professor Franziska Mathis-Ullrich at KIT. Determining this exact point is complicated as these images are only two-dimensional and the human head is three-dimensional. That’s why only about 60 percent of all free-hand incisions are able to pinpoint the best position.

Surgeons use HoloMed augmented reality glasses to assist them in determining this optimal insertion point and angle for the puncture needle. An AI developed at the AI by science staff member Christian Kunz uses the data from the patient’s digital file and their latest CT and/or MRI scans for creating a model that accurately depicts the structures deep inside the body that cannot be seen externally. This information is superimposed onto the surgeon’s AR glasses and shows the surgeon precisely where and how to guide the needle, much like a navigation system.

Easy to use and cost-efficient

Professor Hein states that machine learning methods are used in the automated generation of this information. “First of all, a segmented 3D model of the head is generated, which is used to determine the target position. However, the doctor is always able to make their own adjustments if appropriate,” Hein adds. The aim of the system is to provide an “innovative, novel and cost-effective solution that has a direct influence on the quality of these procedures”.

After its puncture method is successfully rolled out, HoloMed will also be used for other operations in the future. Since the system is, firstly, easy to use, and secondly, cost-efficient, the inventors say it is ideal for lowering healthcare costs. Plus it would also benefit poorly financed hospitals in emerging countries.

Cover photo: Dr. Michal Hlavac from the University Clinic for Neurosurgery Ulm and Christian Kunz from the “Health Robotics and Automation” (HERA) KIT team evaluating the HoloMed system during the initial surgery simulation with a dummy. (Photo: KIT-HERA).

DDW Talk: Humanoid robots need to alleviate human anxiety

human robots hand

During the ‘Digital Design’ DDW Talk, Sony presented its vision on the future relationship between humans and robots. “When robots have evolved so far that we feel like they’re alive, then humans will begin to feel an affinity toward them,” says Rikke Gertsen Constein. “We really need to learn to coexist.”

Affinity in Autonomy

Constein is Global Art Director at the Sony Creative Center, where she has developed the Affinity in Autonomy design project. In this project, Sony doesn’t look at robotics from a functional perspective, as is customary at present, but from a human viewpoint instead. “We want to experiment on an emotional level,” Constein explains. “The project offers a more abstract vision for AI and robotics. We will be living alongside each other in the near future, but we really need to learn to coexist.”

Symbiosis

What led to this project was the anxiety that artificial intelligence elicits in some people, the designer states. “So we got to work on familiarizing ourselves with the unknown.” The result is an interactive exhibition made up of five installations. Each installation depicts a step closer to an affinity with robots. It starts with the awakening of the intelligence. Subsequently it learns to respond to people and their environment. This ultimately leads to an emotional connection, or in the words of Constein, a ‘symbiosis between humans and robots’. The exhibition was on display at the Milan Design Week last April.

The other side

The designer underlines the urgency of this issue. “Robots will be given an essential role in our society. I sincerely believe that robotics will help people with the most important things in our lives. We’ve tried to flesh that out.” As a way of imagining a genuine relationship between humans and robots, Constein and her team have also thought about the robot’s side of things. “In order to find any real affinity, we also need to think about how things look from the other side.”

Robots as superheroes

In conclusion, Constein notes that we in Europe are far more cautious with regard to these matters than in Asia. “We are often highly critical in Europe. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because we do need regulations for the application of this new technology. But in Japan, for example, it has already been warmly welcomed. People are delighted, as if someone is helping them to make their lives more efficient. Robots are seen as a kind of superhero. Our project has also looked for affinity and empathy, instead of just looking at the more terrifying aspects.”

Read all about Dutch Design Week here

Tomorrow is good: Beware of the visionary

Research on artificial intelligence (AI) started in the years after the Second World War. John McCarthy, an American mathematician at Dartmouth College, coined the term in 1955 while he was working on a proposal for a summer school that he was seeking funding for. A group of AI pioneers met at that summer workshop in 1956 – the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence. The term AI may have been new, but academics such as British mathematician Alan Turing were already thinking for some time about ‘machine intelligence’ and a ‘thinking machine.’ The objective of the Dartmouth project was also along these lines: simulate intelligence in machines and have computers work out problems that until then had been the preserve of human beings. The summer project did not quite live up to its expectations. The participants were not all present at the same time and were primarily focused on their own projects. Moreover, there was no consensus on theories or methods. The only common vision they shared was that computers might be able to perform intelligent tasks.

AI in 2056

The surviving pioneers from the Dartmouth summer project met up again together for a conference in the summer of 2006. During this three-day conference, they asked what AI would look like in 2056. According to John McCarthy, powerful AI was ‘likely’, but ‘not certain’ by 2056. Oliver Selfridge thought that computers would have emotions by then, but not at a level comparable to that of humans. Marvin Minsky emphasized that the future of AI depended first and foremost on a number of brilliant researchers carrying out their own ideas rather than those of others. He lamented the fact that too few students came up with new ideas because they are too attracted to the idea of entrepreneurship. Trenchard More hoped that machines would always remain under human control and stated that it was highly unlikely that they would ever match the capabilities of the human imagination. Ray Solomonoff predicted that truly intelligent machines were not as far from reality as imagined. According to him, the greatest threat lies in political decision-making.

Who is right?

A wide range of opinions, so it seems. Who among them will be right? Predicting technological breakthroughs is difficult. In 1968, the year when 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick was released, Marvin Minsky stated that it would only take a generation before there would be intelligent computers like HAL. To date, they don’t exist. In 1950, Alan Turing thought that the computer could pass the Turing test by the year 2000, which turned out to be a miscalculation. Vernor Vinge predicted in 1993 that the technological means to create ‘superhuman intelligence’ would be in place within thirty years and that shortly after that year the human age would come to an end. There are still a few years left before it’s 2023, but even this prediction is excessively utopian.

Flip a coin

Making predictions for the future is problematic, as by definition the future is not determined. The role of chance is often greatly underestimated as well. Even experts are scarcely able to “predict the future any better than if you were to flip a coin.” Therefore, we should all be a bit wary.  Not in the least when it comes to visionaries and tech gurus with their exaggerated dystopian or utopian worldviews. So, don’t just believe anyone who claims that AI will definitely outstrip human intelligence within ten years.

Rules for Robots

The new book by Katleen Gabriels, Regels voor robots. Ethiek in tijden van AI (Rules for Robots; Ethics in times of AI) will be published next week. The English translation will be published in early 2020.

 

 

Start-up of The Day: Hawa Dawa maps out air quality

In Arabic, hawa dawa means something like pure air. Which is precisely the issue that the Munich-based start-up Hawa Dawa is working on. The company has designed an AI-based system for mapping clean air in cities. By integrating all sources of air quality data (satellite data, weather data and geodata) with its own sensor network. This is how they create temporal and spacial maps which show air quality in high resolution.

Small measuring units are installed on lantern posts or buildings that collect raw data. With the help of the latest IoT technology, this data then sent to the cloud and is “adjusted accordingly by a central artificial intelligence to take account of weather conditions, sensor drift and other disruptive factors,” as the company states on its website. The software also combines this data with other data sources such as traffic, weather, and satellite data to generate area-wide models almost in real-time.

The inventors were presented with the Munich Startup Award 2019 at the Munich Oktoberfest as part of the Bits & Pretzels start-up festival back on October the 1st.

Innovation Origins spoke with CEO and co-founder Karim Tarraf about his company and his vision for Hawa Dawa.

The Hawa-Dawa-Team © Hawa Dawa

How did you come up with the idea of launching the start-up?

Whether in the field of development cooperation or within sustainable economic development, you always want to use your own work to change something in the world and make a positive difference. Unfortunately there is a lack of substance and influence in many areas of people’s everyday lives. This became very clear to me when Egypt was on the brink of collapse during the space of 18 days, despite the billions in economic aid it had received. Only by taking one’s own destiny into one’s own hands and entering unexplored territory in technology fields and business models, does anyone get an opportunity to change the world in a sustainable way. Of course, it is by no means a recipe or a guarantee for success. We founded Hawa Dawa with the conviction that with the right team, the right technology and the right approach, we would be around at the right time.

What makes Hawa Dawa so special compared to your competitors and what problems does it resolve?

In just two years, we were able to increase the number of cities and municipalities who we directly work with to 19. We have developed one of the most comprehensive technologies for the collection and analysis of environmental data on our own. In other words, we’ve made our own complete architecture that is specially designed for this application. In the coming months, we want to demonstrate the potential and scope of our company in three representative projects. As well as cater to the growing international interest at the same time.

What has been the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome?

Going your own way and building your own market means doing pioneering work. A path like this is in itself full of hurdles that need to be tackled successively and in a structured manner. Although this also means that you get going without solving every issue satisfactorily. In my opinion, this kind of approach is difficult in Germany and in Europe in general. All the boxes have to be ticked before you start. Thoroughness is often mistaken for a lack of courage. That’s why we respect those people who don’t care about the tech-scene glamour and who just ‘do their thing’.

Mainly local investors are still stuck in old business models. The will to help shape the world and how it will be (and should be) is too often left to pioneers from Silicon Valley or China. Pioneering spirit and thoroughness are among Germany’s virtues. “We are pioneers in a new market.”

What motivates you to go to work every morning?

Working at Hawa Dawa means not only contributing to a better environment, but also enabling open and spirited cooperation in a multicultural and interdisciplinary work environment. For instance, in our work we have noticed that we are able to recruit and inspire administrative staff and CEOs.

© Hawa Dawa

Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?

Of course. That is part of the journey. That you consciously decide against giving up and instead carry on. This validation is important.

And vice versa: What are you particularly proud of?

Our team, which managed to deliver an extremely complex product and a vision for sustainable cities.

What can we expect from Hawa Dawa in the coming years?

Reducing climate change and environmental pollutants, promoting sustainable mobility and healthy living environments are and will remain our main focus. Of the 500 largest companies in the world, 215 have submitted detailed climate reports. Their self-reflections are a stunning insight into the changing nature of global business. Companies estimate that USD 970 billion in assets are at risk from climate change. In most cases over the next five years. So the potential for smart technologies like Hawa Dawa to help resolve these problems are immense.

What is your vision for Hawa Dawa?

Reliable information on air pollution has so far been a matter for experts. Hawa Dawa’s vision is to use intelligent technologies in both the public and private sectors to integrate relevant air pollution data into decision-making processes. When air data is included in decisions on traffic and logistics management, real estate, urban planning and health management, we have the opportunity to fundamentally change cities.

Are you interested in start-ups? We report on more innovative companies here.

Tomorrow is good: By the time you get to the Moral Lab

I had no idea you could be anti time, but it is possible. In fact, that’s a reference to the Dutch title of a booklet about the Mastboomhuis museum. The Mastboomhuis is the only Dutch example of a historic house ‘suspended in time.’ A form of preservation where everything, including the neglected repairs and leftover piles of mail, remains exactly the same as it was left. It is an enchanting experience, wherein you physically step back in time. Back into the life of Henri Mastboom. As such, the rather ill-tempered Henri was quite averse to progress. He was literally anti time.

Whereas I am ahead of time as far as you can be ahead of time. As a sympathizer of the Design Thinking school of thought, my mission in life is to help design a brighter future. That’s why I’m so pleased that the Dutch Design Week is kicking off this weekend. A week in which the entire city of Eindhoven is dedicated to shaping the future. And this time the Dutch Design Week is all the more special for me because we are part of it ourselves.

The ethical conscience within my research group has joined forces with the designers collective We Are. This has led to a veritable moral laboratory. In this moral laboratory we examine how artificial intelligence should be programmed when it comes to making ethical decisions. In a time when chatbots and robot assistants give us solicited and unsolicited advice and when we no longer make our own choices – but choices are made for us – we have to make sure that the artificial intelligence that is advising us and that is making those choices for us, is doing so on the basis of our own ideology. Only then will we be able to fully embrace and trust artificial intelligence. That’s how we design a future that allows people to leave decisions up to technology without any misgivings.

Henri Mastboom would have found our exhibition ‘Moral Lab’ at the Dutch Design Week utterly appalling, and I think that’s the greatest compliment that you can give us.

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.

 

TU Munich: Incarnation of the H-1 robot

Scientists surrounding Prof. Gordon Cheng from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) recently gave the robot H-1 a biologically inspired artificial skin. With this skin, (which is the largest organ in humans by the way), the digital being will now be able to feel its body and its environment for the first time. However, while real human skin has around 5 million different receptors, H-1 has a total of just over 13,000 sensors. These can be found on the upper body, arms, legs and even on the soles of its feet. Their goal is to provide the humanoid with its own sense of a physical body. Thanks to the sensors on the soles of the feet, for example, H-1 is able to adapt to uneven ground and even balance on one leg.

But of far greater importance is the robot’s ability to safely embrace a human being. And this is not as trivial as it sounds. As robots are capable of exerting a force that would seriously harm humans. A robot comes into contact with a human being at several different points especially during an embrace. It must be able to quickly calculate the correct movements and the appropriate amount of force required using this complex data.

“This may be less important for industrial applications, but in areas such as healthcare, robots have to be designed for very close contact with people,” Cheng explains.

Biological models as a basis

The artificial skin is based on biological models in combination with algorithmic controls. The skin of H-1 is made up of hexagonal cells. They are about the size of a €2 coin. The autonomous robot has a total of 1260 of these cells. Each cell is equipped with sensors and a microprocessor. These are used to measure proximity, pressure, temperature and acceleration. Thanks to its artificial skin, H-1 perceives its environment in a much more detailed and responsive way. This not only helps it to move around safely. It also ensures that it is safer in its interaction with people. It is able to actively avoid any accidents.

Event-driven programming delivers more computing power

So far, the main obstacle in the development of robot skin has been computing power. Previous systems were already running at full capacity when evaluating data from several hundred sensors. Taking into account the tens of millions of human skin receptors, the limitations soon become clear.

To solve this problem, Gordon Cheng and his team chose a neuroengineering approach. They do not permanently monitor skin cells, but use event-driven programming. This allows the computational workload to be reduced by up to 90 percent. The key is that individual cells only pass on data from their sensors when measured values vary. Our nervous system works in a similar way. For example, we can feel a hat as soon as we put it on. Yet then we quickly get used to it and don’t need to give it any attention. We only tend to become aware of it again once we take it off or it gets blown away. Our nervous system is then able to concentrate on other, new impressions which the body has to react to.

Prof. Gordon Cheng ©Astrid Eckert /TUM

Gordon Cheng, Professor of Cognitive Systems at TUM, designed the skin cells himself about ten years ago. However, this invention really only reveals its full potential as part of a sophisticated system. This has recently been featured  in the specialist journal ‘Proceedings of the IEEE.’

More IO articles on this topic can be found here:

Top 10 Emerging Technologies (2): social robots

Could you love a robot?

Start-up of the Month: towards the customer service of the future with AI

Every working day we select a European start-up of the day and each week we choose a weekly winner. At the beginning of the new month, readers can decide who will be awarded the Start-up of the Month. In recent months, the winners have come from all over Europe. In June from Italy, in July from Spain, in August from England and in September …. (drum roll) – we have a German winner!

 

Founder e-bot7 (f.l.t.r.): Fabian Beringer, Xaver Lehmann, Maximilian Gerer @e-bot7

The team behind e-bot7 wants to help steer customer telephone services into the future by utilizing artificial intelligence to improve the speed and quality of customer service. As a result, queues of 45 minutes and frustrating repeat calls should in future be a thing of the past.

The demand for good customer service is greater than ever and this technology makes it much cheaper and more efficient than it has been in the past. And that’s how you’ll save on both personnel and office costs. Due to this innovative concept, most of the votes from our Innovation Origins readers for the monthly winner went to this Munich-based start-up.

[democracy id=”6″]

All Start-ups of the Month are automatically in the running for the first Innovation Origins Start-up of the Year award to be presented next year.

 

 

Start-up of the day: ‘Everest Climbing’ has designed a rotating climbing wall ft. integrated AI

Gone are the days when artificial climbing walls were turned into towering peaks. As from now, there are revolving climbing routes. Your advantage: thanks to the sensor, the climber will always be provided with another type of grip. The flexibility of the vertical treadmills also makes them suitable for use at events, as a training device and for rehabilitation. The fitness training machine Everest Climbing was developed by the Polish-German team of entrepreneurs Piotr Malecki and Dariusz Salamonowicz. The latter told us more about the product.

How did you come up with the idea to start Everest Climbing?

We wanted to create a piece of sports equipment that was more versatile than anything before it. A piece of equipment that’s fun and that benefits everyone’s health and fitness as well. When we started out, we had completely different ideas, yet we were never entirely satisfied with them. Then Piotr said “Let’s build a climbing wall.” At first I thought it was just a joke. But when he told me what he meant, I was thrilled.

The idea itself is not altogether new. Because our climbing wall works according to the principle of a treadmill. But it is vertical and climbing grips were mounted to it. You can best see how our climbing wall works in this 40 second video:

 

 

What distinguishes Everest from conventional climbing wall solutions?

It’s hard to talk about standard solutions because this kind of equipment is relatively new and produced by only a few companies around the world.

But we were the first to use motion sensors on this type of equipment. This allows the climbing wall to automatically adapt to the needs of a climber. We also developed a new system that constantly and automatically changes the position of the climbing grips in relation to each other – while climbing. This means that the climbing distance is not only unlimited, but it is also never repeated. It is this system that makes our climbing wall so special. By the way, we have patented it.

Creating a constantly changing route has a double advantage. On the one hand, climbing never gets boring, because you never know when and where the next climbing grip will turn up. And on the other, the maximum level of exercise efficiency can also be achieved.

We also use climbing grips that have been specifically designed for us. In the beginning we worked with conventional climbing grips and tried them out at various levels of difficulty. But after about two years we decided to produce our own grips.

Were there moments when you almost gave up?

Maybe giving up is a bit of an overstatement. But we have already wondered a few times what we would do if we weren’t financially successful. In moments like those, we always brainstormed, tried to analyze our mistakes and adjust our strategy. And we kept on going. Fortunately, there are two of us who are founders. Because it was often the case that when one of us was desperate, the other was full of optimism. So we were always able to support each other both mentally and emotionally.

And what are you particularly proud of?

Of the possibilities that our climbing wall offers everyone. When it comes to entertainment, it puts a happy smile on everybody’s face, because it’s a great deal of fun. In the fitness area, it produces faster and more fantastic results than any other machine in the world. It develops all muscles, burns calories, helps build a perfect figure, not to mention it’s fun. In addition, it is has been greeted with a sense of hope and positivity in the rehabilitation sector.

Which solution of yours can we look forward to next and where do you want to go from here?

That’s a very good question. The Everest climbing wall is our top priority. But we have been working on a new product for a year and a half now. This is the VR Motion Simulator. Up until now, these simulators had been very large and were designed with the entertainment industry in mind, but not for private users. Soon we will be introducing a small VR Motion auto-racing simulator for home use that anyone will be able to afford.

We would like to establish Everest GmbH in the three areas of entertainment, fitness and rehabilitation. The entertainment industry is always on the lookout for new products. They have already embraced our product and have fallen in love with it. The next step for us is the fitness industry, which is currently our focus. A few days ago we signed contracts with our first reference gyms. We are also currently in talks with a large fitness chain.

And in the near future we will also be turning to the rehabilitation industry. We have met so many fantastic people at various events who, despite their handicaps, have not given up on their dreams – including their sports dreams. We also want to realize our other ideas. There are still some projects that are on the back-burner that are waiting for their time to come.

Finally, do you have any tips for other entrepreneurs?

We are still at the very beginning of our path. So I don’t feel authorized to give tips to other entrepreneurs. – Perhaps one thing: please don’t underestimate the importance of marketing and financially-strong partners nowadays. Even the best product should be placed on the market.

Start-up of the day: artificial intelligence for safer rehabilitative therapy

Structural intelligence in combination with sensors could be the future of telemedicine – this is how mission of the Aisens start-up can be summed up. What to do if you invented an innovative technology, but suddenly the market has changed and nobody wants your invention anymore? Adam, Jarosław and Piotr, the founders of the Polish start-up Aisens, have faced that kind of problem. All three of them studied automation and robotics together.

Later, their paths went their separate ways. Adam ran his own business. Jarosław and Piotr stayed at the university and invented new technologies. When they developed sensors for precise drone orientation in space, Adam joined them in order to help transform an invention into a business. However, when the market changed, the founders were left behind with interesting technology, but without any idea how to use it. Then Jarosław’s wife, who is a physiotherapist by profession, offered her help. The founders learned from her all about what problems physiotherapists have to face every day. It turned out that sensors, which were originally supposed to be for drones, is able to be successfully used in the treatment of patients. Subsequently Orthyo was created – a system that aids rehabilitation safely by remote.  Recently the device entered the market after more than one and a half years of work.

What exactly is Orthyo?

Adam Woźniak, CEO: “Orthyo is a set of sensors and an application that is used in physiotherapy and rehabilitative therapy. It has two features. First of all, it supports diagnostics. Currently physiotherapists, occupational therapists and orthopedists just use their eyes in order to assess the mobility of joints and range of motion. Or they use a goniometer, i.e. an adjustable protractor. Its level of accuracy depends on how precisely it is applied to the patient’s body. Orthyo specifies the measurements. After placing sensors on the patient’s elbow or knee joint, the specialist collects parameters about the mobility of the joints. This type of examination can be carried out during the first visit to the clinic, but it can also be done during subsequent visits in order to evaluate the effectiveness of a therapy.”

And the second feature?

We enable safe telerehabilitation. Patients nowadays often either don’t do their exercises at home at all, as they don’t remember them or are afraid that they will hurt themselves. Or they exercise incorrectly and actually worsen their condition. Thanks to our device it is possible to record a series of exercises for any given patient at the clinic. We somehow personalize the therapy this way. The patient puts on sensors at home and when they exercise they see their avatar (e.g. their virtual hand or leg) on the screen. They are then able to compare their movements to the model movement and correct themselves if necessary. After completing a series of exercises, they can send the results to the server for the therapist.

The best moments for the company have been …?

The very first one was when we received a grant of 180 thousand PLN for the development of the idea after just giving a PowerPoint presentation. The second time was when we got to go to the  Startupbootcamp Digital Health accelerator in Berlin. There were 3,000 entries from all over the world, and we made it into the top ten. That’s when we stopped having second thoughts. The third time was when we signed a deal with an investment fund. Then other people started to believe that we were capable of building much more.

The most difficult time for the company?

There are always difficult moments. Sometimes the financing from investors didn’t keep up with our plans. The certification process for the medical device was not easy either, but finally we managed to complete it.

What are your plans for the next year?

By the end of the year we want to validate our business model. We expect that we will be selling Orthyo Pro kits to clinics and from that patients will be renting Orthyo Home sensors for their homes. This year we would like to sell a few dozen or so sets to clinics in Poland and have a few hundred or so patient rentals. In the next 12 months we would also like to approach foreign markets. We are already holding talks on these matters with foreign partners.

What do you want to achieve in 5 years?

We want to be a fully-fledged, self-financing company that operates on several continents and has its branches in several countries around the world, and have a portfolio which includes more products based on artificial intelligence and sensors.

 

All of our articles on start-ups can be found here.

 

 

Start-up of the week: a real person as a customer service rep? How old-fashioned!

”Your sneak preview of the future” is the slogan of Innovation Origins, and that’s just what we will highlight with our Start-up of the Week column. Over the past few days, five start-ups of the day have been featured and on Saturday we will choose the week’s winner.

Innovation Origins presents a Start-up of the Day each weekday

We shall consider various issues such as sustainability, developmental phase, practical application, simplicity, originality and to what extent they are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals  of UNESCO. They will all pass by here and at the end of the week, the Start-Up of the Week will be announced.

 

SatAgro – A satellite’s eye for precision farming

As new technologies emerge, it is becoming easier for agricultural businesses to keep an eye on their land. In the past, everything had to be checked by hand and consequently a lot was overlooked. A combination of GPS equipment and sensors under the ground, on the land surface and in the air allows us to keep a very close eye on the growing crops without the need for human eyes.

SatAgro is actually exactly what you would expect from it – a satellite that looks after crops. The farmer saves a lot of time by outsourcing monitoring and always knows exactly how much fertilizer, pesticides or phytohormones are needed at any given time. This system might also be a solution for people without green fingers and a lousy garden …

Glowingplaces –  Let forlorn city spots shine once more

Eindhoven is generally not really known as a picturesque place with beautiful historic buildings. Most will associate the city of Brabant with desolate, redeveloped buildings and Philips. In the 1970s, no fewer than 40,000 people worked for the electronics company. However, this was almost half a century ago, and Philips gradually began to disappear from Eindhoven over time. What was left were abandoned factory sites with little left to do besides demolishing them.

Sandra Poelman has shown that things could be done differently. She was one of the architects behind the renovated Strijp-S, which over the past decade and a half has developed from a sad abandoned mess into one of the most innovative hotspots in the Netherlands. And now her expertise and experience is available to everyone through her start-up Glowingplaces. Which helps transformations from hopeless to hotspot. Poelman’s experience says more than enough. Let’s just say that a certain, sensational, unspecified site that publishes about start-ups is located at Strijp-S … we are not naming names here.

Zwolle, Oss and Bergen op Zoom have already started working with her and at the moment she has had so many requests that there’s a queue.

Tofmotion – Robot security

Following transport, logistics and administration, security should become the next sector where machines will take over from the people. Technological tools in the security sector are nothing new, but if it is up to Tofmotion’s camera equipment, video surveillance ought to be carried out without the intervention of a single person in the future.

This LIDAR technology is not new, but Tofmotion has made LIDAR more accurate. This technology used to work a bit like a knight’s helmet, so it could only make environmental scans using ‘stripes’, which were never very reliable. This is not the case with the cameras from this Austrian company. They use so-called Time-of-Flight (flashLIDAR) technology, which emits a kind of electromagnetic cloud that is immediately analyzed in order to determine whether or not there are any deviations from a normal situation.

Tofmotion sees itself as a pioneer in this field, their camera has already received an official safety certificate and they are eager to continue discovering the unexplored world of robotics and security. Will the ubiquitous V insignia on security staff uniforms disappear from the streets soon? Then this trio just might have something to do with that ….

 

Tangany – Extra security for blockchain

Blockchain was quite the buzzword in 2017.  No one really knew what it was, and every self-styled innovation guru thought that this was the future and that everyone should go for it. So far, even government agencies are convinced that blockchain is the future for them as well. Although they still don’t know exactly how and in what areas, it does sound good. Blockchain … a wonderful word that appeals to the imagination, obviously. ‘Cyber security expert’ Rian van Rijbroek has even created a whole revenue model around it and was able to amplify her mind-bending message on the Dutch national news television program Nieuwsuur.

However, blockchain is a technology that must be taken seriously and it offers plenty of advantages. The decentralized storage of data on numerous interconnected servers certainly has merit. And even though nobody really understands all the possibilities of this technology, Tangany promises to offer concrete solutions. It also offers concrete products for companies that want to work with blockchain, yet who don’t know exactly how to do that. The Germans are still looking for funding, but believe that, as pioneers, they will make the potential of blockchain technology more accessible as well as discover new innovative applications.

 

E-Bot7 – Automatized customer service

The team behind E-Bot7 wants to help telephone customer services enter into the future by using artificial intelligence to ensure that customers are served faster and more effectively. As a result, queues of up to 45 minutes and frustrating repeated calls (due to unsolved problems) may be a thing of the past.

A self-learning system that is designed to handle complaints or queries which can be resolved on the basis of standard procedures.  On average, around 90 percent of incoming calls to a telecom provider are handled by a computer. What is this percentage based on? The personal experience of this author, who in their grey past was once a ‘customer expert’ at a really friendly call center. In cases where more customization and expertise is needed, it will still be possible to transfer the call to a skilled human customer service representative. The E-Bot7 is very much in its infancy at the moment and can only speak English and German. However, the German company has big plans and wants to expand the software step by step with new technologies, specialties and languages.

Now, as a reader, you are probably thinking: _an insensitive robot on the line which is nothing more than a talking procedure … That’s not much different from the current situation, isn’t it?” This is partially true, especially for certain companies involved in parcel delivery and unnamed government agencies burdened with issues such as tax, benefits or driving ability.

However, it definitely makes a difference: artificial intelligence is not familiar with the phenomenon of ‘office hours’, which means that you are able to get your affairs in order even in the middle of the night. Ideal! And that’s why we want to crown E-Bot7 with the honor of calling itself Start-up of the Week! Despite the fact that personal attention is being lost, E-Bot7 – or technology that resembles it – certainly seems to be the future. What’s more, companies en masse are already working on it, but not on the same general and universal scale as this start-up who can roll it out across more sectors.

The need for customer service is greater than ever, yet this technology makes it cheaper and more efficient than ever before. And that’s how you save on both personnel and office costs. It’s a pity though that this technology means that thousands of call center employees will have to look for new employment in the coming decade.

 

Start-up of the day: e-bot7 incorporates AI into customer service

“Please hold, you are next in line …” – who is not familiar with this irritating announcement, which – according to statistics – makes us spend almost 43 days of our lives on hold? With the help of e-bot7, lengthy customer service will in future be a thing of the past. The fledgling company plans to use adaptive AI in order to make this process more efficient. Furthermore, employees and bots will also be directly provided with relevant information so that they are able to respond to customer inquiries within the shortest possible time. The Munich-based start-up was founded in 2016 when the entrepreneurs – Fabian Beringer (CEO, Sales & Marketing), Xaver Lehmann (CEO, Strategy & Finance) and Maximilian Gerer (CTO, IT & Data Science) – also got so annoyed by customer service and realized that something had to change.

Fabian Beringer & Xaver Lehmann in an interview with Innovation Origins.

Please give our readers a brief history of the origins of e-bot7:

Fabian: After becoming so frustrated when we were kicked off a customer service hotline after waiting for more than 37 minutes, it was clear to us that this was a problem that had to be resolved. That’s exactly why the three of us entrepreneurs were tinkering with an idea that, with the help of artificial intelligence, would not only help agents to be able to work more quickly, but also automate recurring customer queries so that customers will be able to get their answers faster.

What makes your product so special compared to other products?

Xaver: We offer a hybrid Agent + AI platform whereby agents do not have to manually train the AI system, but it is trained automatically during business operations. We also call it “automated supervised real-time learning.” With our solution, we are able to improve customer service efficiency by up to 80%. Integration is simple and fast – less than two to four weeks – and flexible, i.e. it can be used on-premise or in the cloud. Furthermore, you will be able to use our Contextual Dialog Editor to set up complex processes, integrate them into the back-end systems and then fully automate them. We also have the most powerful multilingual algorithm as well as important strategic partnerships with EY, Sopra Steria, Roland Berger, McKinsey, Muuuh! and so on. In addition, the platform is capable of being seamlessly integrated into existing CRM systems.

Fabian: While most of those in the industry still choose to use third-party neural networks, we offer a simple interface for end clients which have our own AI developers and technologies that allow us to constantly update and improve our models, while offering each of our clients a comprehensive, customized solution to get the most out of their resources.

What major challenge have you had to overcome?

Xaver: Over the past year, our team has more than doubled and is set to keep on growing. A big challenge in this growth phase is building structures and maintaining the identity of e-bot7. Therefore it is crucial that we hire the right people.

Team: e-bot7 @e-bot7

Do you remember a particularly good time when it came to setting e-bot7 up?

Fabian: It’s very difficult to name the one best moment because life as an entrepreneur is always exciting. We are very happy to see that we can give our team members the opportunity to reach their full potential. At the same time, we are always thrilled with the great feedback we receive from our customers.

What are your plans for e-bot7’s future?

Xaver: We have a lot of stuff planned for our roadmap. One of our milestones for the coming years is our international expansion into Europe, USA and Asia. We want to become the leading provider of artificial intelligence for customer service. With the opening of new offices in London and Paris and an existing office in the United Arab Emirates, E-bot7 might be employing up to 100 people by next year.

Fabian: In addition, we want to expand and develop more languages with a focus on internationalization. In the future, companies will have to concentrate more on extending customer service in order to establish direct contact with customers. This trend is supported by new AI technologies such as the e-bot7 platform. Currently, it is technologically possible to automate up to 80% of text-based queries. We believe that full automation will take 100% longer. This would require an enormous amount of data, computational power and new technologies. As soon as this is possible, e-bot7 will become the first provider of this AI technology.

How important is this work to you?

Fabian: In our opinion, the ‘Life-Balance’ motto is not ‘Work-Life-Balance‘. E-bot7 is a substantial part of our life and we think about it all the time. That’s a lot of fun. Nevertheless it is important to take time for our families, friends and other stuff!

Xaver: It was clear to us from the beginning that you have to give your all and that there is always a solution. If you have enough stamina and ambition, hard work and the openness to constantly see things from different angles, you will succeed in moving a company forward. That’s really the kind of work we enjoy.

What is your final tip for other entrepreneurs?

Xaver: Have confidence in yourself and never give up. Many people will talk down the idea and say that it will never work. Do your own thing and realize your vision! There are some people who believe in you and will help you bring it forward.

New! Personal identification via unique, physical vibrations

German professor Stefan Schneegaß from the Human Computer Interaction department at the University of Duisberg-Essen is investigating new methods whereby vibrations from the human body can be used for personal identification. There is already some interest from telecom companies, he tells Innovation Origins.

One example of the new identification method being developed involves placing your arm on a plate that sends out signals to which your arm responds, the professor explains when questioned. The precise manner in which a limb reacts varies from person to person. Vibrations in an arm’s response are unique. A new identification code is created by registering these vibrations and linking them to personal data. Another method for logging on to a computer or mobile phone, for instance, uses Google glasses, says Schneegaß. These send out a sound to which the body of the person wearing a pair of Google glasses then responds, which in turn alters the vibrations in a unique way. This is detected by an opening on the front side of the Google glasses. This is how it registers whether or not the glasses are worn by a user who has a connection with a computer or mobile phone. If not, the wearer cannot log in because their body reacts differently to these sound vibrations.

Device on your arm

A similar system is also possible for a device that you could wear on your arm and which detects signals from your body that correspond to the device on which you can log in, says Schneegaß.

The reason why Schneegaß is looking for new methods for biometric personal identification is that the existing methods are relatively easy to forge. The most well-known biometric method that we have been using worldwide for quite some time now is the fingerprint, for example for the smartphone starter button. “Fingerprints are left behind everywhere,” says Schneegaß. So they are easy to copy. This has actually already happened before. For example, in 2015, a Chinese hacker group was suspected of stealing more than 5 million fingerprints from the American government’s personnel administration, which was serving as an identification tool.

Whether the new methods can’t be tampered with is difficult to say. “In any case, it will be more complicated”, Schneegaß expects. But it’s not possible to rule it out completely because you never know which technology a future thief will use to make use of unique, physical characteristics.

Telecom companies are dying of impatience

It turns out that the key question is when will new biometric identification methods be introduced onto the market. Schneegaß: “I get calls from telecom companies every year asking if the technology is already available. But we are still barely at the start of this new development.”

According to the professor of Human Computer Interaction, the introduction of a new biometric identification method is not just about its technical performance. “It’s also about being user-friendly. And the latter is not always the case when it comes to existing methods. So in that respect, new methods must lead to improvements as well. He cites fingerprint identification at the customs authorities at airports in the United States as an example of shortcomings in this area. You have to make a print of several fingers there before you are allowed to walk through. “If that takes two minutes for every passenger, and there is a very long queue, then it is not that user-friendly”.

Dutch student association Serpentine seeks new AI applications via video games

The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in video games could form the basis for new applications in the real world. This is the starting point of the Serpentine student association. They want to bring people from various study programs and levels together in order to develop AI for video games. “This will provide our members with more practical knowledge. In addition, we are contributing to the AI research community as a whole. We make all of the algorithms that we write publicly available,” explains Mickey Beurskens, team leader at Serpentine.

Along with chairperson Wouter van den Bemd and treasurer Richard van Wouw, he presides over the association that was founded over half a year ago. Members are able to work on AI and register for e-sport competitions. Fourteen students from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and Fontys University of Applied Sciences have now done so. Together they are trying to find new applications for artificial intelligence. AI is being used more and more in various fields. Van den Bemd: ” We are developing fundamental techniques in a fun way because of the e-sport competitions.”

Beurskens adds to this: “A video game is nothing more than a simulated environment. This allows us to take major strides in the field of research into AI relatively easily and cheaply. A test environment in real life is much more expensive.” The example is an algorithm built by Open AI. It was built for a video game yet was also later used to operate a robot arm, for example for use in hospitals.

AI enthusiasts badly needed

Members with a passion for video games and AI can gain important experience at the association. “Artificial intelligence is able to be used in a wide range of techniques,” says the team leader. “That’s why people are needed who have a lot of expertise in this field. There are very few of them at the moment.” By facilitating an environment that appeals to people, for instance video games, the board wants to appeal to people’s passion for this technique. “We are dependent on volunteers, so passion is very important”, says Van Wouw. “People must enjoy working on this, and then groundbreaking applications will follow automatically.”

That’s precisely what Serpentine is aiming for: a place to learn about AI. “People from various educational backgrounds often look at problems very differently,” says Van den Bemd. “This can be very useful in the development of AI. He is a mechanical engineer himself and has learned to program by just doing it. “We can build prototypes quickly in this way, for one thing,” he says. “On the other hand, it is also important to have an understanding of the official rules in programming. That means you’ll end up with software scientists more often. On top of that it, of course, all needs to be well documented.” Cooperation between various people with diverse skills is therefore crucial to the association.

Time, effort and passion

That is why the association is building a community. Van Wouw: “A community stems from the time, effort and passion of its members. Enthusiasm within the group is high. That’s really important.” Beurskens adds that it is vital to give people the opportunity to really get to know each other and to let them work together over a longer period of time. “This is how we can build a strong bond between our members.”

That is what makes working within the association different, according to the men, rather than collaborating on interdisciplinary coursework at the university. Van Wouw: “You are then stuck to a time limit of only a few weeks, which means that the bond between people is less strong. What’s more, in the end everyone just wants to get a good mark for his or her own coursework.” The members work within the community on long-term projects with, for instance, a competition as a deadline. “As a result, they develop both technical and social skills.”

The team itself also makes grateful use of another community – TU/e Innovation Space. A place on the university campus where various start-ups and student teams are busy developing their innovative idea into a product or service. “We were looking for a workplace where our members would be able to get together,” says the treasurer. That’s how the association came to TU/e innovation Space. Eventually they were given more than just a workspace. “The contact with other teams and experts walking around here is really nice. This allows us to spar over entrepreneurial questions and we are coached to get even better results.” Consequently, the board asserts that it has given a very good pitch and that challenging goals are set and accomplished time and time again.

AI conference

For the coming year, the board already has a number of interesting e-sport competitions in mind which they want to participate in. Including an event organized by Fruitpunch.ai. – a TU/e student team focusing on the organization of e-sport competitions. “As well as that, we would love to be able to attend a large AI conference with a good number of our members. This is where various competitions take place”, Beurskens says. “We want to immerse people in such events so that they can easily exchange ideas.” The ultimate goal is to take that knowledge back to the association, build even better AI and subsequently publish it for other users. “Being able to work together for the best result is key to our association.”