BAT­TLING GIANTS

Clar­i­fai’s im­age-recog­ni­tion ai can go toe-to-toe with those of google, IBM and Mi­crosoft. now the startup must fight to stay com­pet­i­tive.

Forbes - - CONTENTS - by aaron TIL­LEY

Clar­i­fai’s im­age-recog­ni­tion AI can go toe-to-toe with those of Google, IBM and Mi­crosoft. Now the startup must fight to stay com­pet­i­tive.

In the sum­mer of 2013, as Matthew Zeiler was close to fin­ish­ing a PH.D. in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence at New York Uni­ver­sity, he seemed to have ev­ery tech gi­ant in the palm of his hand. Zeiler had left an in­tern­ship with a Google AI group a few weeks ear­lier when he got a call from an un­known num­ber while he was run­ning along the Hud­son River. It was Alan Eus­tace, then a se­nior vice pres­i­dent of engi­neer­ing at Google, who had heard about Zeiler’s AI chops. Eus­tace wanted Zeiler to join per­ma­nently. To en­tice him, Eus­tace told him he would make an of­fer that was among the high­est Google had ever made to a new grad­u­ate, Zeiler re­calls. Zeiler won’t say how much he was of­fered, and Google de­clined to com­ment. But of­fers for top re­cruits with spe­cific ex­per­tise can add up to sev­eral mil­lions of dol­lars over four years, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple with knowl­edge of the mat­ter. Re­gard­less, Google’s of­fer kicked off a bid­ding war for Zeiler and his knowhow in deep learn­ing, the vaunted branch of AI that’s driv­ing ma­jor break­throughs in computing.

Within days, Zeiler re­ceived a big­ger of­fer from Mi­crosoft, which Google promptly matched. Ap­ple also wanted to chat, and when Zeiler flew out to Silicon Val­ley, Mark Zucker­berg per­son­ally sought to per­suade him to join a new AI re­search group at Face­book. Zeiler re­spect­fully turned them all down, de­cid­ing in­stead to start a com­pany with an au­da­cious goal: to com­pete with the giants that were court­ing him. “It was a crazy pe­riod,” Zeiler re­mem­bers. “I had this low-risk op­por­tu­nity of join­ing a tech gi­ant ver­sus do­ing my own startup.” Zeiler says he knew that some of his al­go­rithms worked bet­ter than Google’s on cer­tain AI prob­lems. “I knew I had to fol­low my gut,” he says.

Four years later, Zeiler’s New York City-based startup, Clar­i­fai, is widely seen as one of the most promis­ing in the crowded, buzzy field of ma­chine learn­ing. Clar­i­fai of­fers im­age- and video-recog­ni­tion tools for devel­op­ers that ri­val those from Google, Mi­crosoft and oth­ers. Much as Stripe and Twilio make it easy for pro­gram­mers to tap into pay­ments and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Clar­i­fai gives its cus­tomers ac­cess to cut­ting-edge AI tech­niques that would cost mil­lions to repli­cate. Com­pa­nies like Unilever, Buz­zfeed, Ubisoft and Sta­ples U.K., as well as mak­ers of med­i­cal de­vices and drones, use Clar­i­fai to au­to­mat­i­cally an­a­lyze mil­lions of im­ages and videos. One of the com­pany’s 100 or so cus­tomers, i-nside, makes a smart­phone ac­ces­sory for imag­ing the inside of an eardrum and di­ag­nos­ing ear dis­eases. Rev­enue, while still small, is ex­pected to reach $10 mil­lion as early as next year, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple close to the com­pany.

That Clar­i­fai has made it this far is, in and of it­self, re­mark­able. In the past few years, AI— in par­tic­u­lar a form of it called deep learn­ing or deep neu­ral net­works—has emerged as the Next Big Thing in tech. Deep-learn­ing tech­niques work loosely like the brain, with lay­ers of “neu­rons” con­nected with “synapses.” The tech­niques are lead­ing to sub­stan­tial break­throughs in ar­eas like im­age and speech recog­ni­tion, which in turn are ush­er­ing in ad­vances in every­thing from medicine to self-driv­ing cars to ro­bot­ics.

But there’s a prob­lem: Amid the scram­ble for ta­lent, the rich­est com­pa­nies in tech have con­sumed en­tire uni­ver­sity de­part­ments and ac­quired just about ev­ery AI startup they could get their hands on. Google has been the hun­gri­est, with at least 11 Ai-re­lated ac­qui­si­tions, spend-

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