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Play a game with AI to boost your public speaking

Six months after coming out of stealth mode, a Seattle AI startup called Yoodli is raising the curtain on a free website that’s designed to improve your public speaking.

And as if that’s not enough, Yoodli is throwing in some free games as well. “Think of these as Wordle, but for communication skills,” Yoodli co-founder Varun Puri said in an introductory video.

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Overwatch raises $11M for airborne imaging with AI

Overwatch Imaging, an Oregon venture that makes airborne imaging systems for piloted aircraft and drones, has closed on an $11.15 million investment round led by Squadra Ventures and Shield Capital.

Other participants in the round include the Portland Seed Fund and two strategic investors, L3Harris and Bridger Aerospace.

Overwatch said the fresh funding will be used to accelerate the company’s growth and enhance its automation and image analytics software. The company plans to hire 15 to 20 more engineers and business development professionals this year.

Founded in 2016, the Hood River, Ore.-based startup specializes in precision imaging systems equipped with onboard AI software. The dual-use systems can be used for defense applications as well as for civilian applications including search-and-rescue, wildfire mapping, disaster response and infrastructure inspections.

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AI gets tested on space station, starting with gloves

“Check my spacewalking gloves, HAL.”

The HAL 9000 computer that starred in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and made such a mess of maintenance issues on the Discovery One spaceship — isn’t on the job on the International Space Station. But Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are teaming up with NASA to put artificial intelligence to work on mundane orbital tasks, starting with the chore of checking spacewalkers’ gloves for wear and tear.

That’s just one of two dozen experiments in AI, cloud and edge computing that have been run on HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 since the hardware was sent to the space station a year ago.

“We’re bringing AI to space and empowering space developers off the planet with Azure, and it’s enabling the ability to build in the cloud and then deploy in space,” Steve Kitay, senior director of Azure Space at Microsoft, told me.

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‘Kimi’ takes its cue from Alexa, Siri and Seattle tech

Once again, Seattle’s tech scene provides the backdrop for a high-profile movie on HBO Max — but this time, it’s serious.

Oscar-winning film director Steven Soderbergh’s tech-noir thriller, “Kimi,” echoes movies like “Rear Window” and “The Conversation” in a tale that also reflects the mind-wrenching isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the concerns raised by smart devices that are capable of tracking our every move.

Zoë Kravitz portrays an employee at a Seattle tech startup that markets a smart speaker and AI voice assistant called Kimi. The startup is gearing up for an IPO that promises a big payoff, but as Kravitz’s character works through a list of audio files that Kimi couldn’t understand, she happens upon a snippet that suggests a crime was committed. Her efforts to get to the truth spark a classic spy chase with some extra tech twists.

It’s a tale far darker than “Superintelligence,” the 2020 romantic comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a Seattle techie and James Corden as an AI overlord.

Will “Kimi” stir up a debate over AI voice assistants? Does the movie accurately reflect the Seattle vibe? Will it generate as much buzz as Amazon’s Alexa, or will it flop as hard as the Fire Phone? The early indications are mixed: On the Rotten Tomatoes website, for example, the critical consensus is thumbs-up (89%) while the audience score is an emphatic thumbs-down (52%).

To get the verdict from ground zero, we turned to the experts who helped us sort out the fact, fiction and frivolousness in “Superintelligence”: Carissa Schoenick, director of program management and communication at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; and Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire’s go-to guy for coverage of Seattle’s tech culture.

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Are you illiterate about AI? Test your AI IQ

Can artificial intelligence write its own programs? Is there AI in your TV remote control? Researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence say that knowing the right answers to such questions is an essential part of being literate in our tech-driven society — and that most of us would get a failing grade.

A national survey, involving 1,547 adult Americans who were given a 20-question quiz about AI’s capabilities, found that only 16% of the test takers scored a passing grade of better than 60% on the quiz.

“The majority of Americans are AI illiterate,” Nicole DeCario and Oren Etzioni report today in a posting to PNW.ai, an information service provided by the institute, also known as AI2. Etzioni is AI2’s CEO, while DeCario leads AI2’s special projects team.

What’s your AI IQ? Take AI2’s quiz

The researchers acknowledge that the extent of AI illiteracy shouldn’t be surprising. “AI is not part of our schools’ curricula, and the main source of information about it today, according to our survey, is YouTube and social media,” they write.

However, they argue that a basic understanding of how AI works is “critical for informing everyday decisions, adopting appropriate economic policies and maintaining national security.”

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AI makes customer service bots sound more like humans

Earlier this year, Seattle-based WellSaid Labs helped create an AI disk jockey with a voice that sounds like it’s coming from a flesh-and-blood DJ. Now WellSaid’s lifelike voice bots could be coming to a customer-service line near you.

California-based Five9 says it will incorporate WellSaid’s voice synthesis technology into its Virtual Voiceover menu of synthetic voices suitable for self-service contact centers. The new capabilities will be provided to users of the Five9 Inference Studio 7 platform at no additional cost, with wide availability planned in early 2022.

WellSaid Labs, a three-year-old startup fostered at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s AI2 Incubator, takes advantage of artificial intelligence to produce natural-sounding synthetic voices like the ones that Five9 will give its Intelligent Virtual Agents, or IVAs.

“In our experience, the more lifelike an IVA can sound, the better the reception it will receive from the customer who is speaking with it,” Callan Schebella, Five9’s executive vice president for product management, said today in a news release. “We’re continually looking for the latest and greatest technologies to enhance the Studio platform, and we are excited to partner with WellSaid to bring this new innovation to our customers.”

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Amazon partners with UCLA on AI science hub

Amazon and UCLA are launching a research hub that will draw upon industry and academic research to address the social issues raised by the rapid rise of artificial intelligence.

The Science Hub for Humanity and Artificial Intelligence will be based at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering in Los Angeles, with Amazon providing $1 million in funding for the initial year of the partnership. The two parties may renew the agreement for up to four additional years.

In a news release, UCLA said faculty from across its campus will collaborate with Amazon’s AI specialists to identify and solve research challenges in the field of artificial intelligence, with particular attention to issues such as algorithmic bias, fairness, accountability and responsible AI. The collaboration will support doctoral fellowships and research projects as well as community outreach programs.

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This AI has the upbeat sound of a DJ down pat

As he turns from a Foo Fighters tune to the Smashing Pumpkins, Andy sounds just like your typical alternative-rock DJ — but his tag line is positively inhuman.

“Ever feel like your day just needs a shot of pick-me-up? Well, that’s what we’re here for — to help turn that frown upside down and crank the dial to 11,” he says. “Yes, I may be a robot, but I still love to rock.”

The robot reference isn’t just a nod to his canned DJ cliches: In a sense, Andy really is a robot — as in ANDY, or Artificial Neural Disk JockeY. And thanks to Seattle-based WellSaid Labs and Super Hi-Fi, an AI-centric production company in Los Angeles, ANDY could soon be coming to a streaming music service near you.

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Startup’s AI software tackles stage fright

If you’re intimidated by the prospect of giving a speech, going through a job interview or doing a wedding toast, a Seattle startup called Yoodli might have just the thing: an AI-enabled software platform that analyzes your delivery and gives you tips for improvement — in a non-judgmental way.

Today the venture is coming out of stealth mode, opening up the waitlist for early access to their beta product and announcing a $1 million pre-seed funding round from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Madrona Venture Group.

Yoodli is a spinout from the incubator program at the institute, also known as AI2. Two of the founders — Varun Puri and Esha Joshi — are AI2 entrepreneurs-in-residence. The third founder is Ehsan Hoque, co-director of the Rochester Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Rochester. All three are drawing upon their personal experience as they take the leap into the startup world.

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Report says AI’s promises and perils are getting real

A newly published report on the state of artificial intelligence says the field has reached a turning point where attention must be paid to the everyday applications of AI technology — and to the ways in which that technology are being abused.

The report, titled “Gathering Strength, Gathering Storms,” was issued today as part of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, which is envisioned as a century-long effort to track progress in AI and guide its future development .

AI100 was initiated by Eric Horvitz, Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, and hosted by the Stanford University Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. The project is funded by a gift from Horvitz, a Stanford alumnus, and his wife, Mary.

The project’s first report, published in 2016, downplayed concerns that AI would lead to a Terminator-style rise of the machines and warned that fear and suspicion about AI would impede efforts to ensure the safety and reliability of AI technologies. At the same time, it acknowledged that the effects of AI and automation could lead to social disruption.

This year’s update, prepared by a standing committee in collaboration with a panel of 17 researchers and experts, says AI’s effects are increasingly touching people’s lives in settings that range from movie recommendations and voice assistants to autonomous driving and automated medical diagnoses.