Big Data’s Cousin—Artificial Intelligence—Is Growing Up

In a not-so-quiet way, the tech industry is placing new bets on artificial intelligence, reviving a long-sought technology by using massive data sets and powerful computers.

San Francisco-based Sentient Technologies on Monday said it raised a $103.5 million Series C round, bringing its total financing to $143 million. The funding came from Access Industries and Hong Kong-based investors Tata Communications and Horizon Ventures.

Sentient Technologies is applying large-scale distributed computing to artificial intelligence. The idea is to  have million or tens of millions of computer nodes, which could be in multiple locations, analyze large amounts of data with AI-based algorithms.

Bringing cloud computing, big data, and AI together “allows us to look at problems differently and solve different problems,” says chief technology officer Nigel Duffy in a company video introducing the company. Doctors in intensive care units, for example, are overloaded with data but could benefit from software that can help them spot potential problems or predict outcomes, he says.

The company’s software is already being used in healthcare to predict the chances of an intensive care patient developing sepsis, Duffy told Bloomberg Businessweek. The seven-year-old company’s algorithms are also automating financial trades.

Artificial intelligence describes a range of computing techniques that have applications in a number of fields, including robotics, speech recognition, and decision-making. Although the idea of giving computers human-like sensing and autonomy has been around for decades, AI technology appears to be maturing. IBM launched a $100 million venture fund around its Watson supercomputer and Google acquired U.K.-based DeepMind Technologies for $500 million earlier this year.

China’s Baidu, meanwhile, hired former Stanford scientist and Google executive Andrew Ng, who is building a team of deep-learning experts to improve the company’s speech-based search. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all have research efforts in artificial intelligence.

New York-based research firm CB Insights says that at least 11 artificial intelligence startups received Series A funding since the beginning of last year. A number are targeting speech recognition while others are focused on analyzing corporate data.

Many of the applications these companies are pursuing, such as improving healthcare or financial transactions, sound relatively innocuous. But the rapid development of artificial intelligence is also raising alarms among technologists. Elon Musk earlier this year called AI “potentially more dangerous than nukes” and “our biggest existential threat.” Others are more skeptical, saying that progress on AI has been very slow (here is an interesting discussion on The Edge.)

There have been many hype cycles around AI so there is reason to be skeptical. But given the rapid growth in both computing and data, it’s worth tracking how strong AI’s comeback will be.

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