Companies that aim to transform how we recycle, make websites more accessible for people who are Deaf, and give the public a greater say in how their towns change have joined a Microsoft programme that uses AI to tackle challenges in society.
The latest AI for Good cohort, based in London, contains 12 start-ups from across Britain who will be given access to Microsoft technology, resources and expertise that will help them develop and launch their products and solutions.
The programme is run by Microsoft and the Social Tech Trust. It is open to entrepreneurs from the UK who are developing a solution that focuses on one of four areas – AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility, AI for Humanitarian Action and AI for Cultural Heritage. By helping grow innovative ideas into established companies, Microsoft and the Social Tech Trust hope to create a more sustainable and accessible world.
Recycleye is among the new companies that joined the cohort. Its founder, Victor Dewulf, aims to revolutionise the recycling process – from companies creating materials, to people putting packaging in bins, through to sorting it at large waste facilities. It does this by using cameras to identify recyclable objects and what they are made of, enabling them to be automatically sorted at a waste plant.
“Our motto is that waste doesn’t exist, it’s just materials in the wrong place,” Dewulf, 23, said. “The reason a lot of materials aren’t recycled is because the cost of sorting it at plants is too expensive, and that’s because the waste industry hasn’t really changed in the past 50 years. To sort different types of recyclable material, the industry is using a lot of large and incredibly expensive sensors, which can miss some items. Using computer vision means we can use just one sensor for the whole plant that’s much more cost effective.”
Peter Hedley, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, added: “Reducing the cost of sorting suddenly makes waste valuable. When the economics reverse and companies start to make a profit from their waste stream, recycling rates will dramatically increase. That’s a true boost to the circular economy and a huge change for the environment.”
Signly is another new entrant into the cohort. The company has developed an internet browser extension that offers sign language for web pages.
For many Deaf people who communicate using British Sign Language (BSL), they consider it their first language, ahead of English. However, a lack of provisioning for deaf people online, combined with a shortage of interpreters, means BSL users are often excluded from essential content.
“If you’re Deaf and your account is overdrawn at your bank, you might have to wait weeks for an interpreter, ask friends or family who can use BSL or contact a deaf organisation to use the website and sort it out,” said Signly ambassador Tim Scannell, himself profoundly deaf since birth. “All that takes time and the overdraft is costing you money. Now, BSL users can self-serve.
“Because the tool can work on any website for any sign language, Signly helps make the online world more Deaf-friendly. As far as we know, this is a world first.”
On sites where the content owner has enabled Signly, Deaf people who want a particular web page signed can request it through the browser extension. Signly will use qualified translators to create a signed version and use Microsoft Azure cloud to upload it for use online.
“Signly proviees Deaf people with more independence and gives them the ability to find out for themselves, at a time and place of their choosing, about all the stuff that everyone else knows about through the internet,” added Scannell, 41.
Meanwhile, Hello Lamp Post lets people have playful conversations with street objects such as statues, benches and post boxes via text messages or popular conversation apps. The service is launched in conjunction with local authorities, developers and construction companies, and Chief Executive and co-founder Tiernan Mines sees it as a great way to get vital feedback on issues in the community.
For example, texting a special number on a sculpture in a park may start a conversation that includes the question: “what would you change about this area?” The person may reply “more cycle parking in the city centre”, which would be directly fed back to the council.
“We want to help local authorities make better informed decisions, while giving people more of a voice in the decisions made about their community,” Mines, 30, said. “The appeal of Microsoft’s AI for Good cohort for us was that it focused on business development, improving AI capabilities and measuring social impact. If I could have chosen what the programme would look like, that was exactly a match.”
The other companies in the cohort are:
- Akari – helps companies use technology to support employees as individuals
- Baobab – provides legal tools that track cases, manage teams and ensure privacy and security
- BeneTalk – a digital coach and tracker for fluency therapy
- Chatterbox – online language learning for professionals and organisations
- Good Boost – transforms public swimming pools into therapy spaces for the rehabilitation of musculoskeletal conditions
- EcoSync – cloud-based platform helping commercial buildings to stop heating empty rooms
- miiCARE – specialises in the application of AI in the area of geriatrics
- MyCognition – tracks, treats and prevents poor mental health through a cognitive assessment and training platform
- OrxaGrid – provides accurate and secure analytics that provide efficiency improvements for energy networks
As well as support and technology, they will also be given space to run their business in the Microsoft for Startups office in Shoreditch.
Amali de Alwis, Managing Director of Startups UK at Microsoft, said: “These 12 companies are some of the brightest and most cutting-edge businesses in Britain, and I am delighted to welcome to them to our cohort. They are all aiming to make the world a better place by using technology to tackle complex problems – from accessibility and heritage to sustainability. Microsoft is keen to help them make an even bigger positive impact on the world around them, and we’re looking forward to supporting them through this exciting stage of their journey.”
Ed Evans, Chief Executive of the Social Tech Trust, said: “The inspiring start-ups in this cohort are all driven by their vision of a better future. We’ve developed the AI for Good Programme in partnership with Microsoft to nurture the transformative innovation that will help them realise their goals. Our four-month impact-led curriculum brings together cross-sector experts to provide these promising purpose-led tech ventures with the support they need to shape our future society. We can’t wait to start working with them.”
The cohort starts on February 7 and runs for four months.