AI-assisted coding start-up Kite sunsets after failing to take flight

3 days ago

Image: © Stephen Coburn/Stock.adobe.com

Founder Adam Smith said his business failed to take off because current state-of-the-art machine learning models ‘don’t understand the structure of code’.

Kite, a start-up that has been developing artificial intelligence technology to help developers write code for nearly a decade, is sunsetting its business.

Based in San Francisco, Kite was founded in 2014 as an early pioneer in the emerging field of AI that assists software developers in writing code – an ‘autocomplete’ for programming of sorts.

But now, after eight years of pursuing its vision to be a leader in AI-assisted programming, founder Adam Smith announced on the company website that the business is now wrapping up.

“From 2014 to 2021, Kite was a start-up using AI to help developers write code. We have stopped working on Kite and are no longer supporting the Kite software,” Smith wrote.

“Thank you to everyone who used our product and thank you to our team members and investors who made this journey possible.”

What happened?

According to him, even state-of-the-art machine learning models today don’t understand the structure of code – and too few developers are willing to pay for available services.

“We failed to deliver our vision of AI-assisted programming because we were 10-plus years too early to market, ie, the tech is not ready yet,” Smith explained.

“You can see this in GitHub Copilot, which is built by GitHub in collaboration with OpenAI. As of late 2022, Copilot shows a lot of promise but still has a long way to go.”

Copilot was first revealed in June 2021 as an AI assistant for programmers that essentially does for coding what predictive text does for writing emails.

Developed in collaboration with OpenAI, GitHub had kept Copilot in technical preview until this summer, during which time it had been used by more than 1.2m developers. The AI was made available to all developers in June, at a cost of $10 a month or $100 a year.

However, Smith said that the inadequacy of machine learning models in understanding the structure of code, such as non-local context, has been an insurmountable challenge for the Kite team.

“We made some progress towards better models for code, but the problem is very engineering intensive. It may cost over $100m to build a production-quality tool capable of synthesising code reliably, and nobody has tried that quite yet.”

‘Individual developers do not pay for tools’

While the business could have still been successful without necessarily increasing developer productivity by 10 times using AI, Smith said he thinks that Kite’s delay and unsuccessful attempt at monetising the service prevented the start-up from taking flight.

“We sequenced building our business in the following order: First we built our team, then the product, then distribution and then monetisation,” he explained, adding that Kite did not reach product-market fit until 2019, five years after starting the company.

Despite the time taken to get to the market, Smith said Kite was able to capture 500,000 monthly active developers using its AI with “almost zero marketing spend”.

But the product failed to generate revenue because the developers refused to pay for it.

“Our diagnosis is that individual developers do not pay for tools. Their manager might, but engineering managers only want to pay for discrete new capabilities, ie, making their developers 18pc faster when writing code did not resonate strongly enough.”

However, not all hope is lost. While Kite will not be going forward as a business any longer, Smith believes AI is still well on its way to “revolutionise programming”.

“While Kite was a pioneering start-up in this area, we were not the company to land it. That’s not the outcome we were hoping for when we started, but we celebrate the courage and contributions from everyone who made the experiment happen.”

Most of the company’s code has now been open-sourced on GitHub, including its data-driven Python type inference engine, Python public-package analyser, desktop software, editor integrations, GitHub crawler and analyser.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com