These Upstarts Are Taking on Big Tech in the Rapidly Expanding Artificial Intelligence Field

Watch out, Google, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft

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The next time you see Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton with an unflattering look on her face in a TV spot supporting GOP rival Donald Trump, it's all but certain you can attribute the ad creative to artificial intelligence. The Republican National Committee is using machine-learning software from Veritone, a 2-year-old player that just secured $50 million in funding. Designed to work with laser-fast precision, its audio-based system lets the RNC zip through all the publicly available times Clinton has spoken on TV, radio or online video to scoop up her angriest or oddest moments. Then, GOP staffers can cherry-pick images from a schadenfreude file. The company is about to add a visual-sentiment feature, which will zero in on facial expressions and make cringe-worthy moments even easier to find.

"That [addition] is happening literally as we speak," said Kristy McKnight, vp and gm of Veritone's politics division. "The cognitive engines will identify different features of every frame."

The Newport Beach, Calif.-based startup, which also counts ESPN Radio, Taco Bell and LegalZoom as clients, represents a growing legion of tech upstarts that want to challenge the likes of Google, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft in the burgeoning (and lucrative) field of artificial intelligence.

"Venture capitalists are pouring money into AI startups," explained KBS Ventures partner Jessica Peltz. "So these are companies that are now starting to launch products, scale their sales and marketing teams, and generate more meaningful revenue."

Case in point: Strike Social. Launched in 2013, the Chicago-based shop expects revenue this year to jump by three times to $100 million compared to last year. It uses artificial intelligence to drive social advertising campaigns that generate bigger engagement and, in theory, greater return on investment.

"Specifically, our AI technology provides targeting and budgeting guidance based on the decisions and performance of the best human ad buyers," said Mark Shore, president of Strike Social. "It also empowers more junior ad buyers to perform at the level of their much more experienced colleagues."

By 2020, the market for machine-learning applications will reach $40 billion, IDC recently estimated. And Israel-based Adgorithms plans to grab its share, last month releasing the second version of Albert, an AI-based system that allows clients such as Harley-Davidson to simply push a button for fully automated campaigns—from media buying to multichannel optimization. The only thing Albert won't do is devise the creative from scratch, but "he" will tweak it on the fly.

"Based on what he learns, he creates micro-segments, essentially identifying entirely new audiences that brands often didn't even know they should be targeting," explained Or Shani, CEO of Adgorithms.

Refuel4's AI-based system was born from a similar mindset. Called Shaka, it helps small businesses afford digital advertising: Pricing starts at $99, and it's designed to improve their ROI. "We constantly analyze and assess what is working and what isn't," explained Vernon Vasu, CMO of two-year-old Refuel4. "When an ad loses its effectiveness, we refuel it with fresh creative."

Omnity, which debuted in March, employs AI to let marketers search an almost never-ending library of advertising history, unearthing campaigns and materials for intel and creative purposes. "Since documents need not be linked to each other, as with traditional search engines," explained CEO Brian Sager, "search results often uncover [unusual] connections between documents that spark new and innovative ideas."

Of course, there are also many business-to-consumer AI hopefuls. For instance, in July, 2-year-old travel app Mezi introduced an AI-powered chat bot that handles flight booking, rescheduling and cancellations. Swapnil Shinde, Mezi CEO, boasted that it makes users "feel they are always talking to a human and not a vending machine."

Perhaps better illustrating how AI can be humanized, entrepreneurial high school student Abu Qader is trying to improve breast cancer treatment for patients on lower-grade health insurance by combining predictive models with data gleaned from their mammograms. The 17-year-old Chicagoan's startup GliaLab, which will launch its beta software today, is already garnering interest from American investors as well as hospitals overseas. "Mammographies are already cheap," Qader said. "We just want to make them more accurate."

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.