Faculty’s Angie Ma says we’re in ‘a bit of an AI hype’

4 Jul 2024

Faculty co-founder Angie Ma.

Faculty co-founder Angie Ma discusses how AI has changed over the years and the key sectors that could be transformed by this technology.

AI is a powerful piece of technology that has various use cases, but there definitely seems to be an element of hype surrounding it too.

The technology has been pushed by tech giants into a massive variety of sectors over the past couple of years, with many successes and some failures. A report from Gartner last year discussed the hype surrounding generative AI and said the technology has reached the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ on the emerging technologies ‘Hype Cycle’.

But while generative AI has drawn attention to this tech and its various use cases, AI itself is not a new concept and some people have been excited about its potential for a long time.

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One of those people is Angie Ma, the co-founder of Faculty, a tech company that provides software, consulting and services related to AI. This UK-based company was founded in 2014 and has grown into an entity of 400 staff with various clients, including some government contracts.

Faculty works to bring AI technology into various sectors, such as defence, life sciences and the public sector. The company gained significant notoriety when it was hired to work with Dominic Cummings on the UK’s Vote Leave campaign and managed to gain a significant number of UK government contracts in a short timespan.

Ma said her journey into AI began around 18 years ago, as her and Faculty co-founder Marc Warner would meet with some of the eventual founders of DeepMind to discuss AI and AI safety.

“I actually got into AI because of AI safety,” Ma said. “Even then, I think it was mind-blowing, and I was convinced that the technology would be transformative for the society.”

Ma’s role in Faculty involves shaping the company’s strategic direction and building relationships with customers, collaborators, partners and media. She describes co-founding Faculty as her biggest achievement – “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding”.

“I think over 10 years, some of the stuff that we have delivered are nationally and internationally important,” she said. “So you make a lot of sacrifices personally as well to do it. So yeah, I would say naive optimism is how usually people do start-ups.”

The phases of AI

Since co-founding Faculty, Ma believes there have been different phases in terms of how people approached AI. She said the first three-to-five years was a “proof of concept” phase, where people appeared to be testing how this tech could be applied.

From around 2017 onwards, Ma said this changed to a more “operationalised” phase, where companies began implementing AI “into business and the everyday running of a business”.

Over the past couple of years, Ma said the technology witnessed a “breakthrough” through the rise of generative AI and she anticipates that there will be increased adoption of the technology and AI breakthroughs as a result.

There is evidence that employees across various sectors are embracing the use of AI in the workplace, despite some concerns about the impact the technology could have on certain jobs. Though a recent Microsoft Index report suggests Irish employers may be falling behind on the AI wave, causing many workers to jump ship.

Reaping real rewards from AI

Ma is no stranger to AI, but noted that there has been an “unprecedented” surge in interest in recent years. But she also believes there is a danger that industries “and wider society” are in “a bit of an AI hype”.

“There’s so many cases, but I think what I’ve really seen that where organisations truly benefit from AI is that they see it more than just a shiny, cool toy,” Ma said. “They actually sort of really integrate that into their core business strategy processes, align it with really clear business outcomes.

“I think through those lenses, all the AI initiatives or efforts become valuable and collectively transformational for the organisations.”

Despite the hype surrounding the sector and some of the more questionable uses of AI that are being witnessed, Ma believes that AI remains a very important technology that will lead to some major improvements.

“I’m a physicist by training, but I got into AI because I do believe that it’s the transformative technology of our time that will touch upon every aspect of lives,” Ma said. “So, it’s already sort of being used in many aspects of our lives, from the very old-school spam filters to AI recommending, to stabilising our photos when we take photos with our phone.

“But I think the biggest opportunities are in a few areas. I think AI has really got the potential to improve the effectiveness and how we experience public service, healthcare and life sciences, from improving the NHS to speeding up clinical trials, speeding up drug discovery.”

Ma also believes that AI will be a “real game changer” in terms of helping with the “energy transition” and supporting the reduction of carbon emissions. However, a recent report by Google suggests AI can be a problem when it comes to energy use – the tech giant’s emissions have surged by nearly 50pc since 2019, which Google attributed to a growth in data centres and AI.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic