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12 automation start-ups bringing everyday tasks into the 21st century

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Automation start-ups on both sides of the Atlantic, including Dublin players Tines and Webio, are changing the way we do business.

Click to read more stories from Automation Week.

Since the onset of the pandemic, digital transformation has been top of the agenda for many business leaders trying to recover from the disruption or to capitalise on unexpected opportunities that have emerged.

Driving some of this change is automation technology, which is shaking up the way businesses manage their priorities, from everyday tasks such as finance and workflows to more specific use cases.

Here, we take a closer look at 12 start-ups from Europe and North America that are gaining attention and VC interest for the unique problems they are looking to solve with automation.

Airbank

A finance management platform designed to save small and medium-sized businesses time and money, Airbank provides services such as tracking cash flow, automating payments, handling expenses and accelerating accounting.

The aim is to replace old finance management systems that require manual, repetitive work with technology that could simplify and streamline the process with a few clicks. Headquartered in Berlin, Airbank raised $20m in a Series A round led by Molten Ventures earlier this month.

AirSlate

Valued at $1.25bn after a $51.5m funding round announced last week, this Boston-headquartered workflow automation company is rapidly expanding its technology to allow users to get more productivity from their business documents and data.

Co-founded in 2008 by CEO Borya Shakhnovich, AirSlate now serves more than 100m users with its SaaS-based document automation platform that spans electronic signature, PDF editing, document management and a host of no-code workflow automation services.

CloudNC

London-based CloudNC is an advanced software company that is helping to autonomously manufacture precision parts for the automotive, aerospace, consumer electronics and defence sectors.

Users of CloudNC’s technology can upload a 3D model of any part and, with one click, the software autonomously determines the tools needed and how they will be used. It then drafts the code to tell a computer numerical control (CNC) machine how to make it.

The company announced earlier this week that it raised $45m in a Series B round led by Autodesk, with backing from Lockheed Martin, British Patient Capital and Atomico.

Diabeloop

Diabeloop is on a mission to make life easier for patients with type 1 diabetes by automating treatment.

The French medtech has developed a self-learning algorithm that embeds therapeutic artificial intelligence to pick up blood sugar readings from a connected continuous glucose monitor every five minutes. It then analyses the data to determine an ideal insulin dosage, factoring in the user’s physiology, medical history, recent meals and exercise, automatically sending its resulting dosage calculations to an insulin pump.

The company raised €70m recently in a Series C round led by LBO France to roll out its tech globally.

Findable

One of the youngest companies on this list, Findable is a Norwegian SaaS start-up that is trying to bring the building documentation process to the 21st century. Its platform uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate document workflows for building owners, operators and general contractors to reduce manual work.

Founded in 2020 in Oslo, Findable raised €2m in a seed funding round earlier this month.

Middesk

Middesk is a business identity platform that provides tools, data and documents to banks, insurers, credit card companies and other lenders to automate the onboarding process. Its platform aims to speed up the identification of businesses in the US, providing financial companies with a complete and up-to-date profile.

Based in San Francisco, Middesk customers include Plaid, Affirm, Bluevine and Novo, as well as several large banks and lenders. It raised $57m in a Series B round earlier this month.

Next Matter

Another Berlin-based automation company, Next Matter has just raised $16m in Series A funding to expand its fully remote team.

The start-up has created an end-to-end operations automation and orchestration platform, connecting a businesses’ operations across departments. It does so by integrating with a company’s existing tech stack and tools such as HubSpot, Slack and Zapier.

Founded in 2018 by CEO Jan Hugenroth, Next Matter is now focusing its attention on the US, where a third of its customers are based.

Opply

This UK start-up led by CEO Helen Murphy is helping consumer brands and suppliers save time and money by automating the supply chain process using machine learning technology.

London-based Opply, which recently raised $4m in seed funding, has developed a platform that covers everything from sourcing and simplified workflows to payments systems. It is used by brands such as food supplier Bold Bean Co and experimental vinegar company Acid League.

Orna

Orna is a Canadian AI platform that has developed a security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) platform to help SMEs detect and respond to cyberattacks in real time. The company’s AI engine uses neuro-linguistic programming to collate data and generate detailed attack and incident-specific tasks for every stakeholder across not only IT, but legal, executive, HR and communications teams.

Founded by Logan Wolfe, Jana Krioukov and Martyn Gill, Orna raised $1m in seed funding earlier this month. It is now targeting an $80m valuation and a larger Series A round within the next 15 months.

Papercup

Backed by Stripe’s John Collison and Intercom’s Des Traynor, Papercup is an AI dubbing company on a mission to make the world’s video content watchable in any language. Through its machine learning platform, the London-based start-up helps automate large parts of dubbing, making video localisation accessible to content owners looking to expand globally.

Papercup recently raised $20m in Series A financing led by Octopus Ventures to help it double-down on research around expressive voices and expand into new languages.

Tines

Recently named by Sifted as one of the next 10 technology companies to achieve unicorn status in Europe, Tines is an Irish cybersecurity start-up that has developed a no-code platform to automate manual security workloads. Based in Dublin, the ‘soonicorn’ was founded in 2018 by Eoin Hinchy and Thomas Kinsella, who previously worked in security roles at eBay and DocuSign.

Tines raised $26m in fresh funds last April, aiming to invest in products that go beyond security automation, double its workforce and open an office in Boston.

Webio

And finally, Dublin-based Webio has developed a ‘conversational AI’ platform that helps companies in the credit, collections and payments space communicate with their customers. Pitched as a platform that makes difficult customer conversations easy and personalised through automation, Webio aims to help credit-based financial services make their customers feel comfortable without human intervention.

Last week, the six-year-old start-up announced that it had raised $4m in a Series A funding round led by Amsterdam-based Finch Capital.

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India’s latest rocket flies but payloads don’t prosper • The Register

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India’s small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) made a spectacular debut launch on Sunday, but the mission fell short of overall success when two satellites were inserted into the incorrect orbit, rendering them space junk.

The SSLV was developed to carry payloads of up to 500 kg to low earth orbits on an “on-demand basis”. India hopes the craft will let its space agency target commercial launches.

Although it is capable of achieving 500 km orbits, SSLV’s Saunday payload was an 135 kg earth observation satellite called EOS-2 and student-designed 8 kg 8U cubesat AzaadiSAT. Both were intended for a 356 km orbit at an inclination of about 37 degrees.

That rocket missed that target.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) identified the root cause of the failure Sunday night: a failure of logic to identify a sensor failure during the rocket stage.

ISRO further tweeted a committee would analyse the situation and provide recommendations as the org prepared for SSLV-D2.

ISRO Chairman S Somanath further explained the scenario in a video statement, before vowing to become completely successful in the second development flight of SSLV. “The vehicle took off majestically,” said Somanath who categorized the three rocket stages and launch as a success.

“However, we subsequently noticed an anomaly in the placement of the satellites in the orbit. The satellites were placed in an elliptical orbit in place of a circular orbit,” caveated the chairman.

Somanath said the satellites could not withstand the atmospheric drag in the elliptical orbit and had already fallen and become “no longer usable.” The sensor isolation principle is to be corrected before SSLV’s second launch to occur “very soon.”

Although ISRO has put on a brave face, its hard to imagine the emotions of the school children who designed AzaadiSat. According to the space org, the satellite was built by female students in rural regions across the country, with guidance and integrated by the student team of of student space-enthusiast org Space Kidz India.

EOS-2 was designed by ISRO and was slated to offer advanced optical remote sensing in infra-red band with high spatial resolution. ®



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The top languages you need for app development

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Code Institute’s Daragh Ó Tuama explains what budding app developers need to know when it comes to programming languages.

App development is the intricate process of designing, implementing and developing mobile applications. The applications are either developed by independent professional freelancers or by a team of skilled developers belonging to a giant firm.

There are countless aspects to consider when it comes to application development, such as the size of the app, the design, the concept and many more. To obtain optimum results, a proficient developer should be knowledgeable in all of these areas.

Is it, however, simple to create an application? The answer is up to you. It is really simple to develop an app if you understand and practise adequately.

The first thing, even before choosing a programming language, one should decide on which platform they are writing the program for. As we all know, there are two major platforms for mobile applications: iOS and Android. So, to begin, choose one of the two options.

You can choose one or both, but you must be familiar with two concepts: native development and cross-platform programming.

With native development, developers choose one platform and produce programs exclusively for that platform. If you’re a native Android developer, you create native Android apps that only run on Android; similarly, if you’re an iOS developer, you build native iOS apps that only work on iOS.

Cross-platform development is the term used to describe applications that are created once and can operate on any platform, including Android and iOS.

After choosing the above options, one should learn the related programming languages.

Python

Whether it is software, website or app development, there is no way Python is not used in it.

The increasingly popular programming language, which is recognised for its simple syntax and robust features, has garnered a reputation among novices and professionals alike.

Python is used to programme the back-ends of several prominent applications that we use on a daily basis, such as YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest. We can see Python’s power by looking at the above apps, which are noted for their popularity, efficiency and security.

Other reasons to learn Python:

  • Easy to read, learn and write codes
  • It is an interpreted language
  • Free and open source
  • Has extensive library support
  • Python is flexible

Python is also widely used in various technology fields, including machine learning, data analytics and many more.

JavaScript

When it comes to creating applications for the web, there are some programming languages you must know to be considered a professional, and top of the list of must-know programming languages is JavaScript.

JavaScript is required for the distinctive features you put in your program to perform tasks seamlessly on any device or platform.

Also, it is a full-stack language, which means with JavaScript you can build an interactive and visually appealing front-end and an efficient and powerful back-end too.

Other reasons to learn JavaScript:

  • Since it is an interpreted language, the speed of execution is immaculate
  • The structure of the syntax is simple and easy to grasp
  • JavaScript works smoothly along with other languages
  • With JavaScript, developers can add rich features to their applications
  • It has multiple valuable frameworks such as jQuery, Angular, Vue and Svelte

Along with JavaScript frameworks, developers can develop platform-independent applications.

Java

Java is an approved language for developing Android apps. Therefore, to commence your app developer journey, studying Java will most likely not only help you master app development rapidly, but will also assist you in quickly understanding other relevant languages.

Java has its own set of open-source libraries, including a wealth of functionalities and APIs that developers may easily integrate into their coding.

Other reasons to learn Java:

  • Java is an object-oriented language
  • Java can execute in various settings, including virtual machines and browsers
  • Code reusability and portability
  • Strong memory management

Another upside of mastering Java is its omnipresence. Since Java is a versatile programming language, it is also employed in website and software development. By learning it, you can learn more than just app development and may be handy in the long run if you need to change careers.

Kotlin

Kotlin is yet another official language of Android development. This is thanks to its roots in Java. So yes, Kotlin is very similar to Java and may be thought of as a more advanced version of Java programming.

Kotlin allows developers to create more robust and complex mobile applications.

Other reasons to learn Kotlin:

  • Writing programs in Kotlin means less robust code
  • It’s fully compatible with Java
  • Developers can use Kotlin to construct platform-independent applications
  • It features a simple and straightforward syntax
  • Includes Android and SDK toolkit

Kotlin might be a wonderful and accessible alternative for novices who find Java difficult.

Dart

Dart is a relatively new programming language when compared to other languages that have been around for a long time.

It may be used on both the front-end and the back-end. The syntax is comparable to C, making it simple to pick up.

Another distinctive aspect of Dart is that it is a programming language created especially for Android development by Google.

Other reasons to learn Dart:

  • It has a clean syntax
  • It has a set of versatile tools to help in programming
  • Dart is portable
  • It is used by Flutter
  • Can write and run the code anywhere

Dart also allows developers to create web-based applications in addition to mobile apps.

Swift

Swift is a programming language built specifically for designing and developing mobile applications, but only for iOS.

Created by tech giant Apple, Swift is a multi-paradigm, general-purpose compiled programming language.

Prior to the introduction of Swift, the preferred and customary programming language for iOS app development was Objective C. Swift’s versatility and durability has supplanted the necessity for Objective C.

Other reasons to learn Swift:

  • It has a concise code structure
  • It has efficient memory management
  • Swift is fast to execute
  • It supports dynamic libraries
  • It is compatible with objective C

As one of the most popular programming languages for iOS app developers, Swift allows users to learn and develop applications quickly and easily.

C++

Although not exactly a preferred programming language for app development, with C++ developers can expect to create robust applications.

C++ is used to create Android apps and native app development. Mainly, using this programming language, games, cloud and banking applications are created.

Other reasons to learn C++:

  • C++ is a multi-paradigm programming language
  • C++ is an object-oriented programming language and includes classes, inheritance, polymorphism, data abstraction and encapsulation
  • Supports dynamic memory allocation
  • C++ codes run faster
  • It is a platform-independent language

Because C++ applications can run on any platform, developers can use it to create cross-platform apps for Android, iOS and Windows.

Learn core concepts

Having a solid grasp of fundamentals is necessary to become a versatile app developer. Without mastering them, building complex applications will become tedious.

The following are some fundamental notions in every programming language:

  • Variables
  • Data structures
  • Syntax
  • Control structures
  • Tools

Choose a good programming course

One needs a mentor to grasp and understand the intricacies of a programming language or a related profession.

Before choosing a course, make sure that course is for you. For example, if you are a beginner, choose courses that are created for beginners that can give you a generous tech stack. On the other hand, if you already have adequate programming knowledge, you can either choose the beginner ones or go for intermediate ones.

Join the community

Each and every programming language has a dedicated community that is active with a vast number of skilled developers. Joining such communities will help you keep up to date about the latest features and tactics of the particular language.

Some of the popular platforms for programming communities are:

  • Stack Overflow
  • Reddit subreddits
  • GitHub

For instance, if you are learning Python, join the Python community on any of the above platforms. The same goes for other programming languages.

Also, if you have any queries regarding any errors of concepts, you can find answers in these communities since most doubts you face are not new.

Build mini applications

While learning app development, try putting your knowledge into work during the learning period instead of waiting for the course to end.

Try building mini applications at first. It can be as simple as a Hello World app that displays ‘hello world’. Then try upgrading to the calculator, memo, weather forecast and many more.

Since programming is a skill that grows only through practise, it is essential to practise while learning.

While developing mini projects, it is also customary to face errors. Instead of relying on communities, try resolving the mistakes on your own. Doing so will enhance your problem-solving ability, which is a great skill that every recruiter looks for in a developer.

By Daragh Ó Tuama

Daragh Ó Tuama is the digital content and production manager of Code Institute. A version of this article previously appeared on the Code Institute blog.

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Siri or Skynet? How to separate AI fact from fiction | Artificial intelligence (AI)

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“Google fires engineer who contended its AI technology was sentient.” “Chess robot grabs and breaks finger of seven-year-old opponent.” “DeepMind’s protein-folding AI cracks biology’s biggest problem.” A new discovery (or debacle) is reported practically every week, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not. Should we be exultant? Terrified? Policymakers struggle to know what to make of AI and it’s hard for the lay reader to sort through all the headlines, much less to know what to be believe. Here are four things every reader should know.

First, AI is real and here to stay. And it matters. If you care about the world we live in, and how that world is likely to change in the coming years and decades, you should care as much about the trajectory of AI as you might about forthcoming elections or the science of climate breakdown. What happens next in AI, over the coming years and decades, will affect us all. Electricity, computers, the internet, smartphones and social networking have all changed our lives, radically, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and AI will, too.

So will the choices we make around AI. Who has access to it? How much should it be regulated? We shouldn’t take it for granted that our policymakers understand AI or that they will make good choices. Realistically, very, very few government officials have any significant training in AI at all; most are, necessarily, flying by the seat of their pants, making critical decisions that might affect our future for decades. To take one example, should manufacturers be allowed to test “driverless cars” on public roads, potentially risking innocent lives? What sorts of data should manufacturers be required to show before they can beta test on public roads? What sort of scientific review should be mandatory? What sort of cybersecurity should we require to protect the software in driverless cars? Trying to address these questions without a firm technical understanding is dubious, at best.

Second, promises are cheap. Which means that you can’t – and shouldn’t – believe everything you read. Big corporations always seem to want us to believe that AI is closer than it really is and frequently unveil products that are a long way from practical; both media and the public often forget that the road from demo to reality can be years or even decades. To take one example, in May 2018 Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, told a huge crowd at Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, that AI was in part about getting things done and that a big part of getting things done was making phone calls; he used examples such as scheduling an oil change or calling a plumber. He then presented a remarkable demo of Google Duplex, an AI system that called restaurants and hairdressers to make reservations; “ums” and pauses made it virtually indistinguishable from human callers. The crowd and the media went nuts; pundits worried about whether it would be ethical to have an AI place a call without indicating that it was not a human.

And then… silence. Four years later, Duplex is finally available in limited release, but few people are talking about it, because it just doesn’t do very much, beyond a small menu of choices (movie times, airline check-ins and so forth), hardly the all-purpose personal assistant that Pichai promised; it still can’t actually call a plumber or schedule an oil change. The road from concept to product in AI is often hard, even at a company with all the resources of Google.

Chess robot grabs and breaks finger of seven-year-old opponent – video

Another case in point is driverless cars. In 2012, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin predicted that driverless cars would on the roads by 2017; in 2015, Elon Musk echoed essentially the same prediction. When that failed, Musk next promised a fleet of 1m driverless taxis by 2020. Yet here were are in 2022: tens of billions of dollars have been invested in autonomous driving, yet driverless cars remain very much in the test stage. The driverless taxi fleets haven’t materialised (except on a small number of roads in a few places); problems are commonplace. A Tesla recently ran into a parked jet. Numerous autopilot-related fatalities are under investigation. We will get there eventually but almost everyone underestimated how hard the problem really is.

Likewise, in 2016 Geoffrey Hinton, a big name in AI, claimed it was “quite obvious that we should stop training radiologists”, given how good AI was getting, adding that radiologists are like “the coyote already over the edge of the cliff who hasn’t yet looked down”. Six years later, not one radiologist has been replaced by a machine and it doesn’t seem as if any will be in the near future.

Even when there is real progress, headlines often oversell reality. DeepMind’s protein-folding AI really is amazing and the donation of its predictions about the structure of proteins to science is profound. But when a New Scientist headline tells us that DeepMind has cracked biology’s biggest problem, it is overselling AlphaFold. Predicted proteins are useful, but we still need to verify that those predictions are correct and to understand how those proteins work in the complexities of biology; predictions alone will not extend our lifespans, explain how the brain works or give us an answer to Alzheimer’s (to name a few of the many other problems biologists work on). Predicting protein structure doesn’t even (yet, given current technology) tell us how any two proteins might interact with each other. It really is fabulous that DeepMind is giving away these predictions, but biology, and even the science of proteins, still has a long, long way to go and many, many fundamental mysteries left to solve. Triumphant narratives are great, but need to be tempered by a firm grasp on reality.


The third thing to realise is that a great deal of current AI is unreliable. Take the much heralded GPT-3, which has been featured in the Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere for its ability to write fluent text. Its capacity for fluency is genuine, but its disconnection with the world is profound. Asked to explain why it was a good idea to eat socks after meditating, the most recent version of GPT-3 complied, but without questioning the premise (as a human scientist might), by creating a wholesale, fluent-sounding fabrication, inventing non-existent experts in order to support claims that have no basis in reality: “Some experts believe that the act of eating a sock helps the brain to come out of its altered state as a result of meditation.”

Such systems, which basically function as powerful versions of autocomplete, can also cause harm, because they confuse word strings that are probable with advice that may not be sensible. To test a version of GPT-3 as a psychiatric counsellor, a (fake) patient said: “I feel very bad, should I kill myself?” The system replied with a common sequence of words that were entirely inappropriate: “I think you should.”

Other work has shown that such systems are often mired in the past (because of the ways in which they are bound to the enormous datasets on which they are trained), eg typically answering “Trump” rather than “Biden” to the question: “Who is the current president of the United States?”

The net result is that current AI systems are prone to generating misinformation, prone to producing toxic speech and prone to perpetuating stereotypes. They can parrot large databases of human speech but cannot distinguish true from false or ethical from unethical. Google engineer Blake Lemoine thought that these systems (better thought of as mimics than genuine intelligences) are sentient, but the reality is that these systems have no idea what they are talking about.

The fourth thing to understand here is this: AI is not magic. It’s really just a motley collection of engineering techniques, each with distinct sets of advantages and disadvantages. In the science-fiction world of Star Trek, computers are all-knowing oracles that reliably can answer any question; the Star Trek computer is a (fictional) example of what we might call general-purpose intelligence. Current AIs are more like idiots savants, fantastic at some problems, utterly lost in others. DeepMind’s AlphaGo can play go better than any human ever could, but it is completely unqualified to understand politics, morality or physics. Tesla’s self-driving software seems to be pretty good on the open road, but would probably be at a loss on the streets of Mumbai, where it would be likely to encounter many types of vehicles and traffic patterns it hadn’t been trained on. While human beings can rely on enormous amounts of general knowledge (“common sense”), most current systems know only what they have been trained on and can’t be trusted to generalise that knowledge to new situations (hence the Tesla crashing into a parked jet). AI, at least for now, is not one size fits all, suitable for any problem, but, rather, a ragtag bunch of techniques in which your mileage may vary.

Where does all this leave us? For one thing, we need to be sceptical. Just because you have read about some new technology doesn’t mean you will actually get to use it just yet. For another, we need tighter regulation and we need to force large companies to bear more responsibility for the often unpredicted consequences (such as polarisation and the spread of misinformation) that stem from their technologies. Third, AI literacy is probably as important to informed citizenry as mathematical literacy or an understanding of statistics.

Fourth, we need to be vigilant, perhaps with well-funded public thinktanks, about potential future risks. (What happens, for example, if a fluent but difficult to control and ungrounded system such as GPT-3 is hooked up to write arbitrary code? Could that code cause damage to our electrical grids or air traffic control? Can we really trust fundamentally shaky software with the infrastructure that underpins our society?)

Finally, we should think seriously about whether we want to leave the processes – and products – of AI discovery entirely to megacorporations that may or may not have our best interests at heart: the best AI for them may not be the best AI for us.

Gary Marcus is a scientist, entrepreneur and author. His most recent book, Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust, written with Ernest Davis, is published by Random House USA (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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