Element AI opens London outpost with focus on AI for good

Element AI — which last year raised $102 million to build an incubator-meets-consultancy to work with multiple businesses as they launch new services and systems based on artificial intelligence — is entering the next phase of its growth this week.

The Canadian startup — co-founded by Jean-François Gagné, Nicolas Chapados, and Yoshua Bengio — is opening an outpost in London, its first international expansion. One main focus will be to work with charities, non-governmental organizations and others on “AI for good,” alongside Element AI’s existing work in finance, cybersecurity, manufacturing, logistics and robotics.

The idea is smart and timely: at a moment when many might see the advances of AI as potentially more dystopian and encroaching than beneficial — not to mention reserved for the select few who have the financial and human resources to build AI systems — Element AI wants to position itself, and AI, as something that can be used to help everyone.

“There are so many exciting people in the world of academia and artificial intelligence wanting to do interesting stuff. How can we make sure our tools are not just meeting the needs of big companies? There are others who could also use them,” Dr Julien Cornebise, who will be leading Element AI’s offices in London, said in an interview.

Notably for a startup that is looking to take on the likes of Google in a bid to “democratize” the intellectual and operational capital needed to build out innovative products based on AI, Cornebise himself comes to Element AI from DeepMind, the UK startup Google acquired back in 2014 that now plays a central role in the company’s AI efforts.

He had been one of the first employees at DeepMind, and since leaving in 2016 — in search of, he tells TechCrunch, an environment that felt more like a smaller startup again — he’s been working pro bono at Amnesty International.

He wouldn’t get too specific about what he’s been doing at the human rights organization, except to say that it involved work in “conflict resolution” and working out a way to build algorithms that could help identify bad practices on a larger scale than the organisation could do with limited human resources. (It sounds like the aim is to launch this service later this year.)

While the Amnesty work has pre-dated Element AI coming to London, the idea, he said, would be to use it as a template for how the startup hopes to collaborate with groups.

“I want to be super careful here because I’ve seen too many enthusiastic machine learning people say, ‘Stand back! We are going to save the world!’” Cornebise said (a comment you can imagine might apply just as easily to a more controversial project at DeepMind as it might to the best/misguided intentions of Facebook’s algorithms). “We’ve actually got the easy part. There are people who are going to jail for doing their jobs. I want now to say, ‘How can we help?’”

The startup’s move to London underscores how the UK has put itself on the map when it comes to AI research and applications, with universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and others all breaking ground and producing leading thinkers and startups in areas like computer vision, deep learning and robotics.

“Element AI’s establishment of a London office is testament to the strengths of the UK research and innovation ecosystem in AI, and the potential for industrial collaborations with our businesses,”noted Matt Sansam, Innovation Lead for Digital at Innovate UK, in a statement.

Element AI’s plan is to hire about 20 engineers and developers to start off, based in London. But it also wants to start building out a bigger global network. This second wave of people might be start out initially in London and Montreal (where the company is based), before returning to more spread-out locations to expand work and intellectual capital elsewhere, potentially counteracting the ongoing issue of “brain drain” where the brightest people often leave to migrate to where the jobs and money are.

“Why would it be someone in London who is trying to solve a problem in Burundi, for example?” Cornebise says. “There are tons of minds who we just don’t see from here because they are not part of the academic fabric.”

Element AI itself has raised at least $102 million in funding to date (there was also an undisclosed Seed round in addition to the large Series A). The Series A was led by Data Collective, with Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia and others participating.

Cornebise and a spokesperson for Element AI only smiled, but would not comment, when I asked if the startup would be raising more money to help finance this new aspect of the business and its London expansion. Watch this space.

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