Thirty five years ago having a PhD in computer vision was considered the height of unfashion, as artificial intelligence languished at the bottom of the trough of disillusionment.
Back then it could take a day for a computer vision algorithm to process a single image. How times change.
“The competition for talent at the moment is absolutely ferocious,” agrees Professor Andrew Blake, whose computer vision PhD was obtained in 1983, but who is now, among other things, a scientific advisor to UK-based autonomous vehicle software startup, FiveAI, which is aiming to trial driverless cars on London’s roads in 2019.
Blake founded Microsoft’s computer vision group, and was managing director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, where he was involved in the development of the Kinect sensor — which was something of an augur for computer vision’s rising star (even if Kinect itself did not achieve the kind of consumer success Microsoft might have hoped).
He’s now research director at the Alan Turing Institute in the UK, which aims to support data science research, which of course means machine learning and AI, and includes probing the ethics and societal implications of AI and big data.
So how can a startup like FiveAI hope to compete with tech giants like Uber and Google, which are also of course working on autonomous vehicle projects, in this fierce fight for AI expertise?
And, thinking of society as a whole, is it a risk or an opportunity that such powerful tech giants are throwing everything they’ve got at trying to make AI breakthroughs? Might the AI agenda not be hijacked, and progress in the field monopolized, by a set of very specific commercial agendas?
“I feel the ecosystem is actually quite vibrant,” argues Blake, though his opinion is of course tempered by the fact he was himself a pioneering researcher working under the umbrella of a tech giant for many years. “You’ve got a lot of talented people in universities and working in an open kind of a way — because academics are quite a principled, if not even a cussed bunch.”
Blake says he considered doing a startup himself, back in 1999, but decided that working for Microsoft, where he could focus on invention and not have to worry about the business side of things, was a better fit. Prior to joining Microsoft his research work included building robots with vision systems that could react in real time — a novelty in the mid-90s.
“People want to do it all sorts of different ways. Some people want to go to a big company. Some people want to do a startup. Some people want to stay in the university because they love the productivity of having a group of students and postdocs,” he says. “It’s very exciting. And the freedom of working in universities is still a very big draw for people. So I don’t think that part of the ecosystem is going away.”
Yet he concedes the competition for AI talent is now at fever pitch — pointing, for example, to startup Geometric Intelligence, founded by a group of academics and acquired by Uber at the end of 2016 after operating for only about a year.
“I think it was quite a big undisclosed sum,” he says of the acquisition price for the startup. “It just goes to show how hot this area of invention is.
“People get together, they have some great ideas. In that case instead of writing a research paper about it, they decided to turn it into intellectual property — I guess they must have filed patents and so on — and then Uber looks at that and thinks oh yes, we really need a bit of that, and Geometric Intelligence has now become the AI department of Uber.”