Sentient – Spearheading Globally Distributed Artificial Intelligence

“Data tends to be overrated and intelligence tends to be underrated,” said Antoine Blondeau, CEO of Sentient Technologies, speaking at CB Insights’ Innovation Summit. And we agree.

Sentient Technologies LLC, develops software that helps enterprises in managing complex tasks and improving decision making. Aiming to transform business processes, Sentient, claims it has created the largest and most powerful intelligent system in the world. Sentient delivers innovative solutions using advanced AI technology and massively distributed computing.

Founded in 2007, the company has also operated under the name ‘Genetic Finance Holding Ltd’. It is headquartered in San Francisco, California. Sentient’s software works by running multiple ‘evolutionary algorithms’ over a large dataset. Then using in-house technology, it skims for answers and derives an optimal solution. Sentient’s algorithms are already working on an unprecedented scale by using the power of idle computers around the world, including two million CPU cores and 5000 GPU cards distributed across 4,000 sites worldwide! Sentient’s technology is one step beyond ‘neural networks’. While ‘neural networks’ are good at recognizing patterns in the data, ‘evolutionary algorithms’ or EA, use mutation to create pools of possible solutions on different servers, each of which ranks the pool. An evolutionary coordinator then compares the results and sends the best ranked solution for validation against bigger data sets.

Sentient has almost doubled its size in the past year. The company has over 51-200 employees. They have hired rigorously and the team includes executives from IBM Watson, Highbridge and UC Berkeley.

Financial Analysis

Artificial intelligence seems to be gaining great momentum after its gradual development since the 1960s. Facebook, Alphabet, IBM, robot maker ABB Ltd. and Nvidia are among the tech leaders with big artificial intelligence ambitions. A few trends that have made this possible are (a) the emergence of low-cost & affordable computing power and (b) the growing volume of data that is available to everyone. The investments, acquisitions, trials, reorganizations and breakthroughs of the past years have set the AI industry up to have a tremendous impact. And Sentient is benefiting from all this renewed interest in AI technology.

Sentient is a privately held firm with venture capital backing. At the end of 2014, Sentient raised a Series C funding round of $103.5 million, bringing its total fundraising to more than $143 million. An American conglomerate, Access Industries led the round with Tata Communications (Hong Kong) Limited (a wholly owned indirect subsidiary of Tata Communications Limited), existing investors Horizons Ventures, and a group of private investors in the fields of finance, consumer, food and beverage, and real estate, all participating. It was the largest funding round ever raised by an AI start-up. The company valuation hasn’t been disclosed.

In late 2014, Sentient Technologies emerged to unveil their massively distributed AI platform that was already independently trading stocks. Financial trading was the company’s first practical application for its AI system. It created an ‘AI trader’ that is made up of trillions of software agents, which compete against one another. Also, using this technology, Sentient was able to solve the ‘70 multiplexer problem’. This problem has a search space so vast, that it could never have been solved using a direct or alternate method.  The company has been developing a growing patent portfolio, all the while, that protects its AI technology it refers to as ‘distributed artificial intelligence’ or DAI.

One of the things the company did was to build a powerful platform. It then monetized the platform to address trading, aspects of e-commerce, and the online content discovery experience, as well as, at the research level, it partnered with institutions like MIT, University of Toronto, and Oxford to work on some major world problems.

Founders

Sentient Technologies was founded by Antonine Blondeau and Babak Hodjat, both Silicon Valley veterans. Both are also highly skilled and accomplished particularly in the AI technology field. Blondeau served in the higher management of giants like ‘Good Technology’, ‘Salesforce.com’, and ‘Sybase’. He led ‘Dejima’ as their CEO. Here he developed the technology that would become Apple’s Siri, of iPhone fame. He has been an early pioneer in the field, being involved in Artificial Intelligence for over 15 years, before founding Sentient in 2007.

Babak Hodjat, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Sentient, was previously Senior Director of Engineering at ‘Sybase’ and Chief Technology Officer at ‘Dejima’. He holds a PhD in Machine Intelligence from Kyushu University in Japan. Babak Hodjat, is an active speaker on the future of artificial intelligence.

 

Funding

Funding Rounds (3)*

Date Amount / Round Valuation Lead Investor Investors
Nov, 2014 $103.5M / Series C Access Industries 3
Tata Communications
Feb, 2014 $30M / Series B 0
Apr, 2010 $2.28M / Venture 2

 

Investors (5)*

Investor Round(s) Partner(s)
Access Industries Series C (Lead)
Bob Pasker Venture
Horizons Ventures Series C
Philipp Schloter Venture
Tata Communications Series C (Lead)

*Source: Crunchbase.com

Sentient has a claim to the title as the ‘world’s most funded AI company’. The firm raised a total of $135.78 million in 3 Rounds from 5 Investors. Select investors, such as Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures run by business magnate Li Ka-Shing, and Tata Communications participated. Sentient enjoys the support of a strong global investor base.

Competition, Customers and Partnerships

Tata Communications is fulfilling more than just a role of an investor. The partnership is strategic. Today, over 24% of the world’s Internet routes travel over Tata Communications’ global network which includes the world’s largest wholly owned subsea cable network and a tier 1 IP network that is ranked top five by routes in five continents – providing connectivity to over 240 countries and territories. The company also owns over 1 million square feet of data center and colocation space across 44 global locations, boasts the company website. For Sentient, Tata Communications will be a preferred provider to furnish a suite of enablement services, including data center space, managed hosting and network. Sentient and Tata Communications will also partner to develop additional products and services.

The MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory team has partnered with Sentient on multiple research projects. Sentient has already invented an ‘AI nurse’ that was tested out in a collaborative effort with MIT to detect sepsis – a bacterial infection which is considered the number one killer in the ICU. The ‘nurse’ can continuously collect blood pressure data from over 6000 patients and spot patterns. It is able to predict sepsis infection 30 minutes ahead of time, to an accuracy of 91%, says a wired website article. Sentient is working with the Oxford Genomics Centre to unravel what causes some people to develop genetic diseases. The company is also collaborating with Oxford University to predict the occurrence of pancreatic cancer in patients.

For their first retail partnership with US shoe retailer ‘Shoes.com’, Sentient has built an intelligent system for online shopping that provides a list of recommendations, much like ‘Amazon’ or ‘Asos’.  It also allows for real-time interactions in the virtual world, just as you might do with a particularly skilled salesperson in a brick and mortar store.

Lounge apparel retailer ‘FlyPolar’ uses a service from Sentient that has helped it stay on track to double sales. To boost conversions, ‘Flypolar’, turned to a sophisticated user testing software that uses artificial intelligence. The software enables companies to test an unlimited (nearly) number elements across multiple pages at once. The AI-based software, called ‘Sentient Ascend’, is being used by over ten e-commerce companies. Since implementing the AI software, ‘Flypolar’, has experienced an average order value increase of about 13% and a 16% increase in site visitors initiating the checkout process. The conversion rate has climbed to as high as 1.84% compared with the year’s previous high of 0.89%. Beyond ‘FlyPolar’, lingerie retailer ‘Cosabella.com’ also uses ‘Sentient Ascend’.

In addition to ‘Sentient Ascent’, Sentient also has a product recommendation engine called ‘Sentient Aware’ and ‘Sentient Investment Management’, a hedge fund business that uses the same AI technology as ‘Sentient Ascend’.

Risks

There are three challenges that the company faces: (1) cost-effectively obtaining the required computer power, (2) scaling evolutionary computation (EC) and (3) discovering a pathway to integrate EC with deep learning technology. Sentient’s unique machine learning approach, deployed at a nearly unprecedented scale, is tackling this risk splendidly.

Future

Sentient believes “humans can be replaced in finance, healthcare and retail “.

Sentient Technologies is sponsoring Shoptalk 2017 on Mar 19, 2017. Shoptalk is the new blockbuster retail and ecommerce event. It covers the rapid evolution of how consumers discover, shop and buy – from new technologies and business models to changes in consumer preferences and expectations. Sentient was named in the prestigious Artificial Intelligence 100 2017 list (“AI 100”). AI 100 is a select group of emerging private companies working on ground-breaking artificial intelligence technology. The winners were revealed during ‘The Innovation Summit’, a gathering of top executives and investors to explore the industries of the future. The CB Insights research team selected the AI 100 2017 winners based on a combination of data submitted by the companies, responses to interview questions and the company’s ‘Mosaic Score’. ‘Mosaic’ is an algorithm built with funding from the ‘National Science Foundation’ that gives predictive intelligence into the health of private companies. Sentient Technologies, has also been named a Cool Vendor in the ‘Cool Vendors in Retail, 2016’ report by Gartner.

Beyond refining its machine learning algorithms, Sentient’s focus is on improving decision making at all levels of an organization. Sentient’s DAI platform creates hypotheses, builds on predictions, and continuously improves its decision-making by utilizing Evolutionary Algorithms at scale. In 2017 and beyond, they will continue to build a truly intelligent system, looking to new scientific fields like artificial life, to develop AI concepts that will enable organizations and individuals worldwide.

Sentient will also continue to pursue partnerships to adapt its proprietary data-analysis and prediction technology and to improve its versatility of use. While they continue to use their DAI technology for trading, they are also concentrating on building advanced capabilities in deep learning to solve problems in other industries. They will begin with Sentient-powered image recognition and analysis capabilities called ‘visual intelligence’. Financial trading and e-commerce are Sentient’s first two commercial products, but Mr Blondeau is also eyeing healthcare and biotech as possible future directions.

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