Artificial Intelligence: making the most of lockdown

Sam Slator 30/04/2020 in Specialist investing

Just before lockdown, I attended a conference hosted by F&C Investment Trust and had the privilege of listening to Dr Hannah Fry, an Associate Professor of mathematics at University College London, book writer and BBC Radio 4 presenter.

If you get the chance (post-lockdown) to hear her talk, take it – she’s a great speaker on a fascinating subject. She can – in her words – apply maths to anything from shopping to terrorism.

At this conference, she was talking about artificial intelligence (AI), and specifically using data to understand patterns of human behaviour. Amongst many other things she talked about pigeons diagnosing breast cancer from pictures with 99% accuracy (once one ‘slightly dim’ pigeon was taken out of the equation), and about the one word that can prove we are human not a machine (it’s ‘poop’ in case you were wondering).

Believe it or not, AI’s been around since the 1950s, but has been in an experimental phase for much of that time. Only more recently has it been applied to commerce – and now AI tech is all around us – as we are discovering today.

Here’s how some Elite Rated managers are taking advantage of AI opportunities:

In the new world of lockdown there have been some winners – companies that are benefiting from us staying at home. And for many businesses, AI is at their very core, as Chris Ford explains.

Chris Ford, Smith & Williamson Artificial Intelligence

“Positive contributors to the fund in March included our positions in Ocado, Netflix and Activision Blizzard. The appeal of Netflix (quality on-demand streamed content and value for money for the user) and Activision Blizzard (high-quality video games) is perhaps obvious given the wider public health crisis, but with Ocado – which uses Ai throughout its business – we think that Covid-19 has merely underlined the necessity for food retailers to have a strong and credible e-commerce solution so that they can deliver to customers rather than forcing them to visit a supermarket. As we have seen with M&S in the UK and other retailers such as Aeon in Japan, we believe that Ocado can become the global go-to provider of this infrastructure; it simply does not makes sense for food retailers to try and build their own e-commerce solutions given the time and expense involved.”

Chris explains more about these companies and the use of AI in healthcare, in his recent podcast.

Another new phenomenon in the past few weeks has been TikTok – an app that allows users to create 15 second videos sound-tracked by music clips. Even Dame Judy Dench is getting involved… Downloaded more than 1.5 billion times, Tom Slater explains why it is so popular.

Tom Slater, Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust

“TikTok was launched internationally barely two years ago, but it’s far more than a teenage fad. It is fun, light-hearted, away from the politics that has infected the other platforms, and there isn’t the pressure to project an image like there is on Instagram. Facebook used to be where you spent time with your friends, but now it’s where everybody is, so TikTok has filled that gap for younger people. Teenagers are a demographic which is extremely hard to reach through most other media, and therefore TikTok is very valuable.”

“Scottish Mortgage invested in TikTok’s parent company ByteDance in May 2019. Zhang Yiming, the company’s founder, presented an ambitious vision for the company in which AI would learn and deliver the most engaging content to users. This is now the most interesting company in social media. ByteDance has one of the biggest media distribution networks in China, it’s the first Chinese media company to grow an international presence, and it requires only modest capital investment. You can’t invest in anything like that on the open market.”

But AI was evolving rapidly even before COVID-19 – it was disrupting industry and forcing us to rethink the world around us, as Kirsty Desson and Matthew Brett highlight:

Kirsty Desson, ASI Global Smaller Companies 

“One of the stocks which I think is most exciting is an Australian company called Appen. Appen is the global leader in data labelling and annotation for machine learning and artificial intelligence devices.

“The data that the company labels could be in the form of images or videos or audio recordings or any sort of written text. Appen takes in data from a whole multitude of sources and one of the uses that we’ve probably come across in our daily lives is if we have a smart speaker and you ask the smart speaker to play you a piece of music.

“What that device has to do first of all is it has to recognise the words that you’ve spoken. Then it has to understand the order in which you’ve spoken those words and then the relevance of that order, i.e. your command. And finally, it has to come up with what the correct response. The accuracy of that response is dependent upon both the machine learning tools and that all those little pieces of data have been accurately labelled. The need for these types of services is growing exponentially, as is demand for all these machine learning and artificial intelligence to kind of tools.“

Matthew Brett, manager of Baillie Gifford Japan Trust

“What’s so exciting for us is how robots are being used beyond the car industry and the electronics industry – how they can be used in many different ways. And I think what’s held robots back has been the difficulties with controlling them – the difficulty with the autonomy of the robots.

“But the improvements in machine vision and AI make it possible to use robots a lot more widely than they’ve been used in the past. And what I think is interesting about robots is that there’s only kind of a couple of handfuls of robot stocks globally. About half of those are listed in Japan.”

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