AI Tech North founder: ‘The North is struggling and I want to bridge the divide’

Jem Henderson, June 24, 2019 4 min read

AI is going to radically change all aspects of our society and this transformation has already started. From automating our home temperatures to tracking our supply chains, the time for artificial intelligence is now.

AI expert Sherin Mathew, who has worked in and around the field for more than two decades, has ran a series of meetups in Leeds bringing together people interested in the field.

Keen to drive awareness of AI-related activity in the north of England, Mathew founded the upcoming AI Tech North conference. We spoke to him to find out more about the event and his thoughts on this growing component of our online and offline world.

Where does your passion for AI come from?

Sherin Mathew: I’ve been working in what we’re calling AI now for the past 20 years. I built a robot that monitored people’s safety in their homes a couple of decades ago and that technology is just coming to the fore now.

I have built projects with some of the biggest names in the UK, including the NHS and Sheffield University – working with Microsoft and IBM helping to drive AI adoption in these companies. These AI projects have changed dramatically.

AI has changed dramatically over the years I have worked in it. It’s moved from something complex which takes months of coding to a plug-and-play scenario. A rollout has gone from two years to three months.

I work a lot with companies on their initial deployments but don’t get to see the benefits that come in after the work has been done. I wanted to change that – to have an opportunity to talk about the real impact of AI instead of just working on the rollout.

‘Truth’ comes from huge datasets, not small ones. By the same token, you can’t expect data to be universal for everything. What people want in Yorkshire isn’t the same as what they want in Greece.

What do you see as the benefits of AI?

While AI is unproven in some areas, the potential that it has to democratise the world is amazing; it empowers users and employees. It’s changing up how we work, and the next bit to think about is culture disruption. That’s the hard part. Any AI strategy needs to be people focused. It’s not an opportunity to lay people off, but to shift the way that we work and help us to manage the load better.

For example, AI can do many of the boring, laborious tasks in the legal sector. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need as many lawyers in firms, just that the workload will change. Instead of reading notes and cases, people will be able to relax a little more, spending time on client relationships instead of late nights poring over documents.

What prompted you to start AI Tech North?

I felt that the North needed something cool. I work a lot in London and it felt a bit like a hinterland up here. I thought about starting a cloud user group but that felt old hat. AI Tech North actually started out as a blog but I’m dyslexic so that wasn’t the easiest thing for me to do.

So far we’ve had 10 meetups across the North, including five in Leeds which have been great. I felt confident so thought I would go all in – so I booked The Queens Hotel for July this year. If it goes well, I have even tentatively booked the First Direct Arena for next year.

The North seems to be struggling to catch up with AI. One of the reasons to set up the conference was to try and bridge that divide. There are plenty of companies here that are doing brilliant things with machine learning and with data. What needs to be developed is the leadership to recognise the value and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous nature of AI.

That’s what will drive AI in the North and what we’re trying to support. The conference is for everyone, whether you’re a stakeholder, a startup founder, a keen digital transformation enthusiast or a skeptical bystander wondering what all the fuss is about.

What do you think about the challenges are for AI as it develops?

AI is inevitable. It’s not something to be frightened of – we’re not looking at building Skynet. It can be used for good or bad. Some of the uses that we’re seeing in China, for example, are causing and amplifying social issues. Even here, we can see it in the way that algorithms are overcharging people for things like transport and flights.

By combining datasets, facial recognition and other information, people can be manipulated by reading their emotions. Facebook algorithms are used to manipulate people into voting one way or another. It’s a messy playing field. However, the UK and the EU are driving AI ethics. One of the things that we are going to explore at AI Tech North is how to build AI strategies and infrastructure that is fair, accountable and robust.

We’ve jumped ahead in AI development, in places, without the data to back it up. The challenges are around the limitations of data. A few million rows aren’t enough. ‘Truth’ comes from huge datasets, not small ones. By the same token, you can’t expect data to be universal for everything. What people want in Yorkshire isn’t the same as what they want in Greece.

The predictions for how much AI will impact the economy are huge. It is expected to add £230 billion to the UK economy by 2030, and the global market is expected to be $15.7 trillion. AI will impact every industry. We need to be educated, we need strong digital and AI leadership and good data strategies to really see some of that here in the North.

  • AI Tech North takes place at The Queens Hotel in Leeds on July 20. For 20% off business and professional tickets, use discount code AIFORLEEDS20
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