A techie new year

Why AI, chatbots and virtual reality are the start-up trends to look out for in 2017.

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Uses artificial intelligence to rank and categorise photos.

Why AI, chatbots and virtual reality are the start-up trends to look out for in 2017.

Ask any tech pro for their top prediction for 2017, and you’ll hear the same answer: AI, AI, AI! But that’s not all the coming year has in store. Here are the topics sure to dominate chatter at The Factory, Oberholz and Data Kitchen, and the Berlin start-ups hoping to mount a challenge to Silicon Valley:

The Mensch-Maschine

We humans have long been fascinated with the idea of artificial intelligence – from Metropolis to Robocop. Now, new technology is bringing the concept from far-fetched fantasy to reality. First things first, it must be said that AI isn’t limited to robots or drones: it counts for all machine intelligence, including old-fashioned tech like book scanning or automatic number plate recognition. The AI companies of today, however, concentrate on mimicking human decision-making processes. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the biggest developments in this area are coming from the big tech companies – it’s an expensive business. Almost a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg himself launched the Facebook AI Research partnership program in Berlin. With its first collaboration, the programme provided 32 graphics processing units (GPUs) in four state-of-the-art servers to Professor Klaus-Robert Müller at TU Berlin, whose laboratory is using AI to analyze medical scans to improve our understanding of breast cancer.

But the little guys are getting in on the action as well. Perhaps the best-known Berlin start-up riding the AI wave is the Kreuzberg-based EyeEm. Founded in 2010, the photography licensing start-up now has over 80 million images from more than 18 million photographers across the world in its catalogue, all tagged and ranked via smart image recognition technology. Much like Spotify’s algorithms that cleverly decide what you might like based on your listening choices, EyeEm tracks human input and learns from it to make increasingly on-point judgments about aesthetic values, allowing you to find that perfect food-porn shot for your next pitch meeting. In 2016, the start-up teamed with Apple to apply its tagging and ranking system to your iPhone photos with its Siri-compatible app TheRoll. It’s also recently released the world’s first magazine curated using AI – designers beware!

Can we talk?

Technically (but not necessarily) an AI application, chatbots are programmes designed to interact with humans via text or voice – Apple’s Siri is a prominent example. The tech gained more attention in March 2016 when Microsoft launched its infamous Twitter chatbot Tay. Designed to interact with and learn from humans, it was taken down just 16 hours after launch after being manipulated to spew out Tweets that would make even Donald Trump blush. But despite its teething problems, chatbot technology is only set to grow. Berlin-founded Job Pal for example, is using chatbots as ersatz HR staff to help companies “chat” with potential job candidates during the initial screening phase. The idea is to make the recruitment experience more interactive, with faster responses from the “HR department”, but let’s face it, the cost benefits for businesses are obvious. Job Pal enjoys big backing from IBM, and with Microsoft and its fellow tech giants pouring funds into chatbot development, it’s clear that we’ll be talking to more and more machines in the future.

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Toywheel’s augmented reality racing app.

More virtual insanity

If 2016 must be remembered for one thing app-wise, it has to be Pokémon Go. The free-to-play augmented reality (AR) game took the world by storm with almost 32 million downloads in its first 30 days, and almost as many accidents by distracted users. Challenging the likes of Niantic is definitely a tall order, and for now there are no big Berlin-based competitors for the mantle. On a smaller scale however, Toywheel enjoyed success with its kid-friendly AR game Toycar RC, which launched in 2014 and hit the top in downloads for both Android and iOS; a mobile multiplayer virtual reality ping pong game is in the works. Meanwhile Mitte-based startup Splash, a Snapchat-like platform with 360-degree video and “video painting” technology for casual sharing, created waves in March 2016 when it won the VR category at the SXSW digital festival, but has been remarkably quiet since receiving $2.5 million in VC funding in June. Let’s see what 2017 brings.