Startup stories

Building the personal assistant with personality – 10 questions with Chelsea Chen

Edinburgh, London, Hardware & Devices & IoT, Upscale 3.0, Mid Stage

Orla BrowneOrla Browne, June 29, 2018

Emotech, who joined our Upscale growth programme earlier this year, are part of a new generation of UK Artificial Intelligence companies gathering international attention. Their first product, Olly, the ‘first personal assistant with personality’ became the most awarded robotics product in CES history last year. Expect to see Olly hitting the headlines again when it goes on general release later this year, but ahead of the launch, we spoke to co-founder Chelsea Chen about starting up, scaling up, and AI ending the world, or maybe not.

How do you see virtual assistants and AI transforming our day-to-day lives over the next 10 years?

I believe the development of AI will allow us to enjoy our lives to a greater extent. This is what we’re trying to achieve through Olly. Based on the preferences and behaviour patterns that Olly learns from its user, it is able to proactively offer tailor-made suggestions – we will be freed from mundane daily tasks. In addition, the interaction between human and machines will become more natural – just like how we communicate with each other as humans.

How do you manage consumers’ fears around apocalyptic sci-fi AI, and privacy queries around virtual assistants?

We post demo videos regularly on our social media channel to demonstrate the work-in-progress Olly and the underlying technology. By doing so, we are demonstrate a real and organic Olly to the audiences.

We understand that life at home is intimate and personal. We believe the best way to protect users’ data is by giving them control of their data and following all regulation regarding data privacy, in every country to which the product is shipped.

We use data encryption and anonymisation to better protect Olly users. To put it simply, most of the services run on Olly locally. For the cloud services we send only extracted features instead of raw data. All the data is encrypted on both sides, on the device itself and in the cloud.

In addition, we do not offer data to any third parties.

As founder of the Meet AI meetup, what kind of value and inspiration do you get from meeting with others working in your field?

I initiated Meet AI for many people who harbour a great passion for AI, but have no clue where to start. It’s really educational for a person like me – who does not have technical background – to gain essential AI industry know-how.  

The ideas that I learned from others are quite inspiring and makes me see that we can create a better world through the development of AI. In the future we want to have our own incubation centre, to help people make their AI dreams come true.

After founding Emotech in London, what made you choose Edinburgh for your next office?

We work closely with the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University on several projects, which is why we wanted to set up Emotech North to have closer access to the academia there. Also the cost of running an office in Edinburgh is lower than London.

We want to be able to attract and integrate talent not only from England but across Europe.

How do you manage working in a distributed team? Are there particular tools you use? Things you struggle with, or advice to others?

The team communicate through different channels. The most common ones we use in our daily life would be Trello and Slack. We also use WeChat, similar to WhatsApp. However, we still believe that the best way to communicate or to work together is face to face. We rented an apartment near our London office for the conveniences of our colleagues who travel on a weekly basis from Edinburgh and Oxford and sometimes from San Francisco, Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai.

As an AI company, how do you think the UK stacks up in terms of AI expertise, talent and projects, compared to the rest of the world?

The reason that our CEO Hongbin started Emotech in the UK was because of the accumulation of AI academic research excellence in the here. Many talented AI scientists are based in the UK. UCL is one of the world best neuroscience research institutions; the founder of DeepMind came out of UCL for example. In addition, the UK has real strengths in industrial design, animation design and intellectual property protection, which are big added advantages. 

What recommendations do you have for someone interested in working in AI?

In addition to choosing the right course to study, it’s important to follow emerging trends in AI, and technology in general. A personal favourite of mine is the Daily Tech News Show podcast, where the latest news is discussed and analysed in a entertaining and informative way.

Also, for those who are based in London, do come along to our monthly Meet AI events. It is not only instructive, but also a fantastic networking opportunity for AI aficionados looking to meet other like-minded professionals.

What’s more difficult, developing the tech, or scaling a business?

It’s hard to say which one is more difficult – for me it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ question. However, as long as you have the right people and funding, at the right time, these shouldn’t be difficult.

For me the difficult part is how to sustain and expand the world-class team at Emotech. Business-wise, we are trying to develop an international business in the AI industry, not just constrain Emotech to the West or purely look into the Chinese market.

If there’s one mistake you’ve made along the way of scaling Emotech, what would it be, and how can others avoid doing it?

Sometimes you don’t really expect how fast your team could grow. It can be really intense and stressful when the business grows really fast, and you still don’t have enough people in place. By the way, we are hiring!

What’s been the highlight of your journey so far?

I’m proud about Emotech’s diversity. Not only do we all come from different countries, with different cultures, but we also differ in personality. Diversity of thinking is also really important. It’s exciting that we’ve assembled a team of great people, innovating together.  

We are also really proud that we’ve combined the research from UK academia with talented professionals from UK industry to transform into a business in a competitive international environment.

A diverse company of international founders, building cutting-edge hardware and software in distributed teams based across the UK, Emotech are a British company with an international outlook and global ambitions. Their founders could have chosen anywhere in the world to set up shop, but chose the UK for its strengths across many disciplines, not a speciality in one. They’ve embraced modern ways of working to maximise productivity, and they’re scaling fast. They exemplify the best of UK tech. And their little robot is really cool.