Protocol | Enterprise

Microsoft, Facebook, IBM and Google have dominated AI research. Asapp is trying to change that.

Cheaper computing, more sophisticated tools and abundant funding are making it possible for new competitors to emerge.

Smaller AI players are challenging the giants.

Smaller AI players are challenging the giants.

Image: Uriel SC

In the modern era of artificial intelligence, a handful of companies dominate industry-backed research — Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM. No surprise there: Those firms have war chests the size of nation-states and have made AI a core business focus.

But now, empowered by more sophisticated tools, ever-cheaper computing power and plenty of funding, startups are trying to challenge that dominance.

One is Asapp, which sells software to digitize the call center. It's a hot upstart in customer experience technology, a market that could see sales of $24 billion a year by 2027. Investors including industry heavyweights like John Chambers and John Doerr have poured over $255 million into Asapp at a valuation of $835 million, per PitchBook. It counts household names like American Airlines and Vodafone as customers.

Since its founding in 2014, Asapp has assembled a research team with some of the top minds in conversational AI. Leading the group is Chief Technology Officer Will Robinson, who spent over a decade at Google. The company recently hired Ryan McDonald, another longtime Google employee who focused on natural language processing research there, as chief scientist. Other key personnel include Tao Ma, the former head of speech at JD.com. And its mission is much more singularly focused than that of the industry giants: It aims to pinpoint research that can improve its product suite.

At places like Facebook and Google, "scaling very, very big and very, very broad is almost assumed with anything that a researcher there is doing," Robinson told Protocol. "We are laser-focused on this customer experience performance platform. And the further we dig into the problem, the more surfaces and the more places we are going to find to apply this advanced artificial intelligence."

While firms like Microsoft and Google produce research at the same pace of top educational institutions like Stanford and MIT, the direct commercial tie-in is not always apparent. Facebook, for example, is building robots that can beat humans at complex games. It aligns with the company's goal of getting AI to "match human intelligence," but the outcome is unlikely to dramatically change its product landscape right now. Similarly, in 2018, IBM unveiled a machine that can debate humans. While teaching an algorithm to make persuasive arguments is impressive, there aren't many businesses clamoring for that technology. IBM is now trying to integrate that technology into its broader suite of AI products, but it's unclear when that will happen.

Those firms' contributions to the field of AI are still impressive. Google's BERT, for example, is used widely to train NLP models, as well as by the company itself to help improve user searches. It's those kinds of achievements that serve to advance the field overall, but don't necessarily mean a big revenue boost for Google. By focusing narrowly, Asapp and others are tacitly admitting that the longer-term, blue-sky research is much harder to accomplish in a small company.

But Asapp is confident in its thinking that there's room to go deeper, not broader. It's a mindset other burgeoning businesses have as well. PolyAI, for example, also regularly publishes research focused on conversational AI, as well as studies that benchmark its own software against models from the tech giants.

"[In] the field of natural language processing there's rapid innovation occurring that is, in part, being driven by startups," said PitchBook senior analyst Brendan Burke. "Startups are learning how to train models in unique ways to solve particular problems … and the tuning of the model once it's in production can exceed what some large companies are able to achieve."

For that reason, Asapp is actually forgoing research outside the core speciality. And that focus is helping bring on talent like McDonald and Ma, according to Robinson.

"There are plenty of people with world-class research chops or machine learning, engineering chops who very much want to see their work immediately having an impact in the world and on a business," he said.

Now, Asapp is working to even more closely integrate the research arm with the business itself to amplify that commercial value. For one, researchers often spend time directly with customers, regularly sitting with service agents to learn how they do their jobs. Understanding the pain points then helps inform where Asapp should focus its research efforts.

And despite its smaller stature, Asapp has scored some big research wins over the past few years. Notably, it built an architecture called SRU++ that Asapp says can compete with Transformer, which is used as the foundation for many pre-trained systems like OpenAI's GPT and BERT. And its technology is rated as some of the best; tested against LibriSpeech, a dataset derived from audiobooks that has 1,000 hours of spoken English, Asapp's had the lowest error rate.

Ultimately the rise of Asapp's research capabilities shows how far the field has advanced. A decade ago, access to the compute power and hardware required to test algorithms was much harder to come by. But it's "started to spread out," said Robinson. "One of the things that you see resulting from that is companies like Asapp propping up and … applying this expertise more like a scalpel."

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

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Gaurav Kataria
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Protocol | Workplace

Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

Users can connect their social media addresses and crypto wallet addresses to images in Photoshop. This further proves the image creator's identity, but it's also helpful in determining the creators of NFTs. Adobe has partnered with NFT marketplaces KnownOrigin, OpenSea, Rarible and SuperRare in this effort. "Today there's not a way to know that the NFT you're buying was actually created by a true creator," said Adobe General Counsel Dana Rao. "We're allowing the creator to show their identity and attach it to the image."

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Protocol | China

Why another Chinese lesbian dating app just shut down

With neither political support nor a profitable business model, lesbian dating apps are finding it hard to survive in China.

Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope.

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.

It's unclear what directly caused this decision. 2021 hasn't been kind to China's queer communities; WeChat has deactivated queer groups' public accounts and Beijing has pressured charity organizations not to work with queer activists.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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