The Nimble Hippo took advantage of an opportunity to head to sunny California to attend CB Insights’ first Innovation Summit in Santa Barbara, CA last week. The conference brought together a diverse group of technologists, venture capitalists, business leaders and startups to talk about innovation and, more specifically, where innovation needs to head given global trends.

Three big themes emerged at the conference: future user interfaces, artificial intelligence and automation. Artificial intelligence ultimately was positioned as a platform layer on which other technologies can be built, which is probably where it is most useful for large companies.

I had been thinking the term ‘AI’ had been replaced with “machine learning” since the promise of AI from 20 years ago never panned out (see AI the movie), but it was alive and well here in Santa Barbara.

AI had held out the promise of never making mistakes again. Remember in 1997, when Deep Blue beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov? That was the beginning of the notion of computer intelligence catching up to human intelligence. But it wasn’t long before experts realized that more complex AI applications were much more difficult to model and predict.

Jump to 2017 and the technology, mathematics, and computing power are much more sophisticated, and the research into modelling and algorithms more thorough. AI seems much less science fiction and more like a tool every large organization needs.

There are thousands of startups in this space, but one that was highlighted in CB Insights’ top 100 AI companies was Waterloo-based Maluuba – which announced late last week that it had been acquired by Microsoft.

The point here is that the industry is maturing beyond the hype and potential of 20 years ago, to a point where companies are solving big problems using AI, and smaller, more personal AI experiences are also being refined. The best example here is Amazon’s Alexa and her use in the Amazon Echo voice-controlled speaker.

This is a good transition to the conversation around user interfaces (UI). Today, most of us think about UI as the visual experiences we have on our phone or computer, though there are many other non-visual elements of UI. The way we communicate with our devices is becoming much more analogous to how we communicate with other people, namely, through voice and gesture.

Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, was one of the first broad applications of speech delivered in a new environment. Since then, we’ve seen the emergence of more sophisticated voice-controlled applications and appliances like Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. If this trend continues, and the consensus at the conference was that it will, it will change how we interact with computers in the not-too-distant future.

Waterloo Region’s Thalmic Labs recently raised a Series B round of US$120 million from Intel Capital and Amazon’s Alexa fund (notice the synergies) to build its next generation of gesture-based UI in multiple areas including medical science and virtual reality. This means the future of the user interface is less about screens and keyboards and more about visual and voice commands. Who knows where it will lead us, but we are sure it will be a different place to the one we live in today.

The final area addressed at the conference was automation. Autonomous cars were the obvious starting point for the conversation, including the push from auto manufacturers and their Tier 1 suppliers to invest heavily in autonomous driving technology.

But there were some insightful discussions around the ethics and challenges of fully autonomous vehicles, and the levels of autonomy that automakers like Tesla are currently using. There were two interesting outcomes in this area: First, technology won’t be the limiter of adoption of this technology; it will be the ability of political leaders to answer some truly difficult questions around risk and prioritization – in other words, how will an autonomous vehicle decide whose life takes precedence during a split-second emergency involving risk to more than one person? Secondly, use cases such as farming and long-haul trucking – and not urban transportation – will most likely account for the earliest large-scale adoption of this technology.

Finally, there was a wonderful discussion around corporate venture capital. As more money flows into capital markets for startups, large companies can no longer see venture investing as a part-time job, or as Dave McClure from 500 Startups stated, “A one-week trip to Silicon Valley petting zoo isn’t going to change anything.” Corporations must figure out how to use their VC organizations and evaluate their effectiveness. They can do it for market sensing, for financial returns or to extend their R&D efforts, but should ensure their strategy is consistent and that they’re in it for the longer term.

Overall, the conference offered a great combination of diverse attendees, strong speakers and engaging keynotes. I highly recommend connecting with CB Insights and reading their reports.

Key Learnings:

  1. AI is a platform that is quickly maturing and Nimble Hippo companies need to be aware of how AI applies to their business.
  2. The user interface is quickly changing from keyboards and screens to voice and gesture.
  3. Autonomous driving isn’t going to take over today, but it will continue to be a major trend moving forward.
  4. Corporate venture capital is a growing influence in the VC world, but corporations have to know why they are participating.

Until next time. The Nimble Hippo is heading out to enjoy the last few hours of the California temperatures and he’ll be back next week.

The Nimble Hippo looks at how large organizations can build innovative cultures and disruptive strategies by taking the best lessons from startup ecosystems and applying them in a big-company context.

Photo: Santa Barbara by Michael Theis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

About The Author

Craig Haney
Director, Corporate Innovation, Communitech

Craig is leading the charge for corporate innovation in Canada. His work with Canadian Tire Innovations helped launch the LeanLab project at Communitech, helping large, non-tech companies become faster and more innovative by engaging with startups. As Director of Corporate Innovation at Communitech, his focus is to grow the ecosystem by exposing small companies to big problems they can solve for some of Canada’s largest players. Craig has an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and a Masters of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technonogy (MBET) from the University of Waterloo.