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Edinburgh AI start-up uses ‘bat-like’ sensors to make technology more perceptive

Edinburgh start-up IMERAI is developing artificial intelligence software which uses the kind of echolocation that helps bats navigate.

Founder Alex Bowen says it could be used to monitor vulnerable people’s mobility, assist with social distancing by indicating how many people are in an office of shop or prompt home-assistant technology.

Bowen says it won’t breach people’s privacy because although it uses the kind of MEMs microphones found in mobile phones and smart home assistants, it doesn’t use identifiable data.

He said: “To train and build an AI you need to teach it how to interpret information which is most often described by a human. All AIs need to constantly learn and adapt to understand the world like we do. But industry continues to face the challenge of how to teach AI about what happens in people’s homes without invading users’ privacy from human oversight or camera use.

“As with many problems, nature had the solution. In the wild, bats send out a screech and they listen for the echoes to understand distances and the location of physical objects. In this way, the bat can interpret its surroundings. Our sensors work in a similar way using echolocation to create a picture without any identifying data so that privacy is protected.”

Bowen is a recent Heriot-Watt University graduate who founded IMERAI in 2018 based on his dissertation project. The start-up is based at the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt. IMERAI has now attracted enough investment to add five new engineerings.

Bowen said: “The virtual AI assistants already on the market are manually triggered by voice but our technology will allow the AI to be more intuitive by understanding how its user is moving around. For example, if you are following a recipe and the virtual assistant is reading out the instructions, it will be able to ‘see’ when you are ready for the next ingredient rather than waiting to be prompted for the next instruction.”

Bowen added: “This has widespread applications. As the UK debates how to ease lockdown measures safely, this type of technology could be used to count how many people are present in an office location and how far apart they are to aid with social distancing and infection control.

“For assisted living, this could be game-changing for dementia sufferers and others with assisted living needs, allowing their movements to be monitored and any deterioration to be picked up more quickly.”

Kallum Russell, Business Incubator Manager at the Edinburgh Business School, said: “Edinburgh is renowned for its semiconductor technology and robotics expertise so the city provides the ideal environment from which Alex can effectively scale his business.

“The Enterprise Team has been supporting Alex since he was an undergraduate with start-up advice, contacts, application submissions and training to help attract investment.”


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