AI For Telefonica- Flying cars, augmented reality glasses and contact lenses that can detect diabetes: They’re all innovations born out of Google X, the skunkworks division of Alphabet. But Google isn’t the only large company working on moonshots.
Three years ago Spanish telco giant Telefónica established Alpha, a lab in Barcelona staffed by around 100 people, working in stealth on innovative technology that holds the promise of a potential new revenue streams. The person running all things AI at the lab is Pascal Weinberger, 21.
Weinberger is originally from Germany and like many other computer programmers is self-taught. He dropped out of a bachelor’s degree, having “enrolled to keep my parents happy,” but by 15 had already taken several remote courses in programming at MIT. He went on to work for Google’s Brain team on image translation, and dabbled in tech investing.
Today he’s exploring new approaches to machine learning in the hope of building “empathic,” ethical software that can also become a new revenue stream for Telefónica and potentially reach millions of its customers.
His employer is currently in the business of providing a network connection to 372 million mobile customers around the world, but Telefónica’s net income has fluctuated over the past five years as mobile networking has gradually become a race to the bottom.
Consumers want more data and faster data speeds, but the required infrastructure costs money, and there’s a limit to how much telcos can invest in incremental improvements like speedier, cheaper protocols.
That’s why Weinberger’s AI and machine learning team at Alpha are building something completely different: software that can one day track your daily decisions, and nudge you to make healthier ones. Weinberger refers to this as a “digital service,” called Alpha Health Moonshot.
“Almost all consumer-driven tech is the bad guy on your shoulder,” says Weinberger, referring to the cartoon image of a protagonist with a devil and angel nudging them to make decisions. The Web offers a wealth of free online services that are designed to not only be addictive, but promote constant consumption, he argues.
“We are trained by everything to consume more. … What we’re trying to do is balance it out by building the ‘good guy’ on your shoulder.”
The service will use machine-learning techniques to monitor daily activity and make suggestions. “It will be a service that monitors your decision making and day-to-day life, and from that it helps you make better decisions and live a healthier life,” says Weinberger.
“It’ll understand that you’re eating chocolate because you’re frustrated and try to give you an alternative path.”
Telefónica is giving its moonshot projects a runway of roughly five years before they have to start turning themselves into commercial products.