Startup spotlight: Soul Machines putting a human face on AI
The customer experience is becoming increasingly influenced by artificial intelligence, with the likes of automated chatbots. According to Gartner, by 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be handled without the involvement of a human agent. Companies are keen, however, to retain and promote a human element. That might involve programming a more conversational tone to text, or using speech synthesis to mimic a human voice, as with digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri.
Auckland, New Zealand startup Soul Machines is taking things a step further, however. The company offers “autonomously animated” digital characters with realistic faces and what the company describes as a “human-like communication style”. The so-called “Digital Heroes” are said to have uses in customer care, influencing, sales and even healthcare and wellbeing.
The company closed a $40mn Series B funding round led by Singaporean holding company Temasek today. Also participating were the likes of Salesforce Ventures, Swiss venture capital firm Lakestar and Hong Kong’s Horizon Ventures, which also participated in Soul Machines’ $7.5mn Series A in 2016.
“We’re proud to announce Salesforce Ventures’ investment in Soul Machines because it has an obsessive focus on improving customer experience by using artificial intelligence technology in new ways,” said Rob Keith, Head of Australia, Salesforce Ventures in a Soul Machines press release. “We look forward to continuing to work with Soul Machines as it scales and realises its global aspirations.”
Existing customers of the technology include Procter & Gamble, who enlisted Soul Machines to design an artificial brand ambassador for its SK-II skin care products.
Along similar lines are Samsung subsidiary STAR Labs’ realistic digital avatars known as Neon, which debuted at the CES 2020 trade show. While the company was keen to refer to them as ‘artificial humans’, the levels of interaction they are capable of is yet to be seen, a question Soul Machines itself raised in a news post.
(Image: Soul Machines)
Discord buys Sentropy to fight against hate and abuse online
Discord, a popular chat app, has acquired the software company Sentropy to bolster its efforts to combat online abuse and harassment. Sentropy, monitors online networks for abuse and harassment, then offers users a way to block problematic people and filter out messages they don’t want to see.
First launched in 2015 and currently boasting 150 million monthly active users, Discord plans to integrate Sentropy’s own products into its existing toolkit and the company will also bring the smaller company’s leadership group aboard. Discord currently uses a “multilevel” approach to moderation, and a Trust and Safety (T&S) team dedicated to protecting users and shaping content moderation policies comprised 15% of Discord’s workforce as of May 2020.
“T&S tech and processes should not be used as a competitive advantage,” Sentropy CEO John Redgrave said in a blog post on the announcement. “We all deserve digital and physical safety, and moderators deserve better tooling to help them do one of the hardest jobs online more effectively and with fewer harmful impacts.”
Cleanse platforms of online harassment and abuse
Redgrave elaborated on the company’s natural connection with Discord: “Discord represents the next generation of social companies — a generation where users are not the product to be sold, but the engine of connectivity, creativity, and growth. In this model, user privacy and user safety are essential product features, not an afterthought. The success of this model depends upon building next-generation Trust and Safety into every product. We don’t take this responsibility lightly and are humbled to work at the scale of Discord and with Discord’s resources to increase the depth of our impact.”
Sentropy launched out of stealth last summer with an AI system designed to detect, track and cleanse platforms of online harassment and abuse. The company emerged then with $13 million in funding from notable backers including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and his VC firm Initialized Capital, King River Capital, Horizons Ventures and Playground Global.
“We are excited to help Discord decide how we can most effectively share with the rest of the Internet the best practices, technology, and tools that we’ve developed to protect our own communities,” Redgrave said.