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One Irish multinational is in the top five giants buying up AI companies

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Irish consultancy Accenture stands among US tech giants such as Apple and Google in the race to acquire AI companies.

According to GlobalData’s deals database, five companies dominate when it comes to AI business acquisitions.

Four of these companies are US tech giants, with Apple leading the pack and Google, Microsoft and Facebook following behind.

The other company in the top five is Accenture, the Irish multinational providing consultancy and professional services to businesses worldwide.

Apple’s Siri shopping spree

Tracking mergers and acquisitions from 2016 to 2020, Apple comes out on top with 25 acquisitions of AI companies in the four-year period.

“Apple has been ramping up its acquisition of AI companies, with several deals aimed at improving Siri or creating new features on its iPhones,” said GlobalData senior analyst Nicklas Nilsson.

Nilsson said that Apple’s AI shopping spree is an effort to catch up with Google’s voice assistant and Amazon’s Alexa technology. “Siri was first on the market, but it consistently ranks below the two in terms of ‘smartness’, which is partly why Apple is far behind in smart speaker sales,” he said.

“Machine learning start-up Inductiv was acquired to improve Siri’s data, Irish voice-tech start-up Voysis was bought to improve Siri’s understanding of natural language, and PullString should make Siri easier for iOS developers to use.”

Apple has also made strategic moves to maintain its dominant position as a smartwatch maker.

“The acquisition of Xnor.ai last year was made to improve its on-edge processing capabilities, which has become important as it eliminates the need for data to be sent to the cloud, thereby improving data privacy,” said Nilsson.

Accenture’s AI buys

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Accenture slides in at second place with 17 AI-centric acquisitions in the four-year period, sweeping up a broad set of applications for this technology.

The acquisition of Munich-based ESR Labs was announced in March 2020 to expand Accenture’s capabilities in automotive software. Also in 2020, the Irish firm completed the acquisition of Atlanta company N3 to combine its technology with the Accenture SynOps platform and enhance data-led insights for salespeople.

The acquisition of Chicago consultancy Clarity Insights announced in December 2019 added 350 employees to Accenture’s Applied Intelligence business in North America. This strategic acquisition was focused on enterprise-scale AI, analytics and automation solutions.

A chart showing the AI companies acquired by Apple, Accenture, Google, Facebook and Microsoft in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Image: GlobalData

2017 was a big year with six AI acquisitions from Accenture, including UK company Genfour, which became part of the acquiring firm’s centre of excellence for intelligent automation.

Accenture’s appetite for acquisitions shows no sign of abating in 2021, though AI hasn’t been a specific area of focus. Among many deals already announced in the first quarter of the year is the acquisition of leadership and talent consultancy company Cirrus, while Germany’s Fable+ and California’s Imaginea were acquired to boost Accenture’s cloud offerings.

AI talent also in demand

Following Accenture in the top five are Google, Microsoft and Facebook. “The US is the leader in AI, and the dominance of US tech giants in the list of top acquirers also indicate that these companies have some defined AI objectives,” said Nilsson.

Between them, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook undertook 60 acquisitions in the AI tech space from 2016 to 2020.

“AI has remained a key focus area for tech giants and growing competition to dominate the space has resulted in an acquisition spree among these companies,” added GlobalData analyst Aurojyoti Bose.

Bose also said that job analytics data from GlobalData reveals that these top five acquirers are also on a talent-hiring spree, collectively posting more than 14,000 jobs in AI during 2020 alone.

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UK mulls making MSPs subject to mandatory security standards • The Register

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Small and medium-sized managed service providers (MSPs) could find themselves subject to the Network and Information Systems Regulations under government plans to tighten cybersecurity laws – and have got three months to object to the tax hikes that will follow.

Plans to amend the EU-derived Network and Information Systems Regulations (NIS) are more likely than ever to see SMEs brought into scope, as The Register reported last year when these plans were first floated.

NIS is the main law controlling security practices in the UK today. Currently a straight copy of the EU NIS Directive, one of the benefits of Brexit leapt upon by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is the new ability to amend NIS’s reporting thresholds.

Bringing MSPs under NIS “would provide a baseline for expected cybersecurity provision and better protect the UK economy and critical national infrastructure from cyber security threats,” as UK.gov said in a consultation document issued on Wednesday. Its plans are for MSPs, currently not subject to NIS, to be brought into the fold. This includes defining what an MSP does, legally, and possibly ending NIS’ existing exemption on SMEs.

“The government recognises the strong need to minimise regulatory burden on small and micro-businesses particularly in a rapidly evolving industry such as this. However, recent incidents have highlighted the scale of risk that can be associated with managed service providers – regardless of their size,” said the consultation document.

In essence, if an “operator of essential services” or a critical national infrastructure business outsources something to your MSP, prepare for NIS compliance.

And the flip side: money

Enforcement of NIS is carried out by the ICO, which is getting a funding bonus if Parliament nods through the NIS amendments. Initially coming from general taxation, in time DCMS wants to “extend the existing cost recovery provisions to allow regulators (for example, Ofcom, Ofgem, and the ICO) to recover the entirety of reasonable implementation costs from the companies that they regulate.”

SMEs across the whole British economy are already familiar with this kind of “cost recovery” activity through stealth taxes such as the ICO’s data protection registration fee.

Andy Kays, chief exec of a managed detection and response firm in London called Socura, agreed that “further market intervention is required to help raise the bar to protect the UK economy.”

“However,” he added, “I do believe that interventions like Cyber Essentials, GDPR and NIS have raised the profile of cyber and data security in the UK, and have improved understanding and investment where they are applicable among businesses.”

Jake Moore, global cybersecurity advisor with Slovakian infosec firm ESET, also agreed, saying in a statement: “Essential services are desperately in need of better protection so these new laws will help direct businesses into a more secure offering with the help and direction required. Laws often may seem like they do not go far enough but digital crime is fast paced and the goal posts constantly move making such plans difficult to project or even become out of date by the time they land.”

The consultation closes on 22 April. As well as questions about money, DCMS is also asking about whether the regs should be extended to SMEs and how detailed they ought to be. Have your say via theses 66 pre-formatted questions. ®

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7 early-stage start-ups NDRC is accelerating in 2022

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The first cohort of the NDRC accelerator by Dogpatch Labs has four female co-founded start-ups and two international ones.

After taking over the NDRC accelerator from the Government in 2020, Dogpatch Labs gave it a makeover and launched its first cohort of 11 early-stage start-ups last year.

This year, they are running two accelerators with two separate cohorts and increasing the total number of participating start-ups from 11 to 14. The first cohort, H1, has a total of seven start-ups – four of which have female co-founders.

Announced yesterday (19 January), the first cohort also has two regional start-ups and two international start-ups co-founded by Irish CEOs who graduated from top international talent accelerators Antler and Entrepreneur First.

Here we list NDRC’s first cohort of seven early-stage start-ups in 2022 representing the next generation of Ireland’s start-up ecosystem who are gearing up for Demo Day on 7 April.

Image: Dogpatch Labs

Filter

This start-up helps patients with breathing difficulties such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to monitor their health. A device called Filter can be used by patients in conjunction with an AI-powered digital health coach called Kos to track their respiratory health and get alerts when something’s wrong.

Filter was founded in 2020 by Andrew Gallagher and Stephen Keenan, both University College Dublin alums. Gallagher, who is the chief technology officer, is an engineer by profession, while Keenan has a background in both law and computer science.

GreyScout

GreyScout offers a business tool for companies that want to protect their brand against intellectual property (IP) infringements and counterfeits. The start-up’s product scans across online domains including marketplaces, search engines, websites, social media channels and web forums to identify and remove policy violations and unauthorised content, alerting clients in real time.

On a mission to ‘democratise IP protection’, GreyScout was founded in 2019 by chief executive John Killian and chief technology officer Chris McCauley.

Herd

This start-up has built a novel social platform for sports fans to discuss live matches with friends and make predictions on the outcome. In a game-like interface, users have to compete against each other in guessing next moves of sports payers and the winning side – enriching the virtual live entertainment experience.

Herd was co-founded by Jack Cantillon, who is the chief executive, and Robert Minford, who is the chief technology officer. A qualified lawyer in New York, Ireland and the UK, Cantillon was featured in Sports for Business 30 Under 30 in 2020.

Jama AI

Jama is a start-up that uses natural language processing to help B2B sales reps with communication intelligence and analytics. The platform is a one-stop-shop for all the messaging channels used by sales reps, such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Line, to make customer relationship management simpler and win more deals.

It was co-founded by Kerry-based Aisling Hayes, who is the chief executive of Jama with prior experience in founding and running start-ups in Ireland. Jama graduated from the global accelerator by Antler, an early-stage VC firm based in Singapore.

Öogo

This Dublin-founded start-up connects people who need childcare with those who are looking to provide it. Childcare providers called Minders who can be booked to offer a wide range of services including online tutoring, baby-sitting and maternity nursing.

With changes in the nature of work for many parents because of remote and hybrid work, Öogo hopes to act as a Tinder for childcare, making it simple. It was founded in 2019 by Kate Clark, who worked in sales in New York for five years before starting the business.

Squid

Squid aims to promote customer loyalty towards businesses by incentivising buy from them through loyalty cards. By partnering with Squid, brands can ask their customers to download the Squid app and get rewards for purchases. And additional business portal helps brands get customer insights and track customer loyalty.

The start-up also helps businesses get discovered on their app through a marketplace where they can advertise special offer and sell vouchers to their community. Squid was co-founded by Katie Farrell and Matthew Coffey

Upskill Marketplace

This online platform helps the HR and learning & development teams of businesses to connect with soft skills trainers and professional coaches. It aims to make the process of finding trainers simpler through its online portal that has all details, including pricing, listed upfront. Trainers with Upskill go through a selection process before listing, and user reviews help businesses determine who to book.

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Microsoft’s Activision merger faces real-world barriers to metaverse mission | Microsoft

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If the world of Call of Duty seems fraught enough when you are playing it, try being in it. That could be the consequence of Microsoft’s proposed $68.7bn (£50.4bn) acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the video games maker behind the shoot ’em up franchise. Announcing the deal, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said that gaming would “play a key role in the development of metaverse platforms”.

The metaverse is a catch-all term for an immersive experience that blends the physical and digital worlds through a mixture of virtual and augmented reality. This concept is years away from being fully realised, but it is envisaged that participants – using digital representations of themselves, or avatars – will access it through a virtual reality headset, or augmented reality (AR) glasses that put a digital layer over what they see in the real world. In the metaverse they can socialise with friends, carry out their job – or take part in a video game.

John Egan, chief executive of market intelligence firm L’Atelier BNP Paribas, says that with the Activision deal Microsoft has made it “very clear” that gaming will be at the centre of how metaverse concepts work. And it is not just using the games, but also deploying the creative and technical talent behind them to build virtual worlds.

“Imagine Call of Duty. You’d be dropped into a Battle Royale-like environment, on to a planet like the way Fortnite is now, though bigger by a factor of several thousand. You’ve got an entire planet, so your experience can go on for weeks at a time.”

employees with placards
Activision Blizzard employees hold a walkout to call for changes in conditions for women and other groups at the company in Irvine, California in July 2021. Photograph: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Egan adds that Call of Duty would work in what he calls a “digi-physical” environment, where AR comes in to play and the game is superimposed on participants’ glasses, or even contact lenses.

“Microsoft could create virtual layers over existing urban infrastructure, within which people can use mixed reality lenses, like glasses or contact lenses, to interact with each other. So imagine something like a skateboard park that becomes a Call of Duty arena. And people use their phones as a gun, and they’ve got their glassware on as the mixed reality infrastructure to do that interaction.”

Of course, not every metaverse world will be like Call of Duty – and not everyone would want to go anywhere near it. Egan says Activision games such as Crash Bandicoot, featuring the antics of an anthropomorphic marsupial, offer a more family-friendly alternative.

Analysts have also pointed to the fact that Activision will immediately bolster Microsoft’s gaming business – it owns the Xbox platform and the Minecraft and Halo franchises – regardless of its metaverse plans. The Bill Gates-founded company will gain access to 390 million monthly users, adding to its Game Pass subscription service, which already has 25 million users.

Dan Ives, a managing director at the US investment firm Wedbush Securities, describes Microsoft’s metaverse vision for the deal as “the cherry on top of the sundae”.

“We believe for Microsoft this was the right deal at the right time to boost its gaming strategy and streaming ambitions. Nadella recognised Microsoft’s consumer business needed a shot in the arm,” he says.

The agreed deal would also need to get past US regulators, who served notice on Tuesday that the tech industry would face a tougher regime. Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, the US competition watchdog, and Jonathan Kanter, head of antitrust at the department of justice, announced a review of merger guidelines – with tech among their areas of concern. Kanter said: “We need to understand why so many industries have too few competitors.”

Fallen heroes of war billboards promote the launch of Activision’s Call of Duty: Vanguard in Shoreditch, London, in November 2021.
Fallen heroes of war billboards promote the launch of Activision’s Call of Duty: Vanguard in Shoreditch, London, in November 2021. Photograph: Neil P Mockford/Getty Images for Activision: Call of Duty

It could be argued that this is a “vertical” deal between two businesses that do not compete directly: Microsoft’s Xbox platform and Activision’s games. But regulators are likely to look at whether Microsoft could shut off Activision titles from rival platforms such as PlayStation. Microsoft said on Tuesday it did not intend to “pull communities away” from PlayStation.

Rebecca Allensworth, professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says Khan and Kanter’s review signals a toughening of the environment for tech.

“Generally, there is a lot of muscle right now behind antitrust enforcement in tech,” she says. “Changing the merger guidelines to be harsher against tech mergers is a part of that. The comments on Tuesday highlighted the idea that the guidelines need to be able to recognise competitive harm from mergers that are vertical or mixed vertical. That’s the merger between Activision and Microsoft.” Nonetheless, she says that it is “still very hard to challenge vertical mergers” and the deal may go through.

However, L’Atelier’s Egan added that even if the deal got past the FTC and justice department, there was also the question of integration. On Monday Activision said it had fired or pushed out more than three dozen employees and disciplined another 40 since July, to address allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct at the company, which has nearly 10,000 employees to Microsoft’s 190,000.

“Microsoft has an extraordinarily high level of employee satisfaction,” says Egan. “It’s a really good company. You wonder if one of the biggest threats of this is Microsoft kind of letting the wolf in the door. How are Microsoft going to assimilate an organisation with a culture that is beset by issues to do with misogyny, diversity and harassment over the last number of years which they have failed utterly to remedy? How are Microsoft going to resolve that?”

Should the deal go through, Microsoft will have real-world concerns too.

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