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This startup pays real people to answer questions to build better AI

By Dina Bass Bloomberg

To set up effective artificial intelligence software, a company needs a lot of data. But what happens if you don’t have that kind of specific information about your area?

A Seattle-based startup, Mighty AI (formerly known as Spare5) will get it for you by paying subject-matter experts to spend a few minutes answering questions or performing tasks. Some examples include finding golf aficionados for IBM, people who can describe a photo for Getty Images, and radiologists or technicians to read tumor scans.

The company, which renamed itself to reflect a focus on AI training tasks, is adding three new investors as part of a $14 million funding round: Intel Capital, Google Ventures and Accenture Ventures. It’s unveiling partnerships with Intel and Accenture, too.

Spare5 was spun out of Seattle-based VC Madrona Venture’s labs in 2014, a mobile rival to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which finds workers for tasks online. Around the same time, Getty, reached out to get help categorizing images in its collection.

Like Getty, customers increasingly wanted Fives – the people that take on the “microtasks” – to perform brief activities that train AI algorithms. So Spare5 refocused and renamed itself around that idea.“There’s an arms race in training data” for AI, said Chief Executive Officer Matt Bencke.

IBM, with its focus on Watson AI products, wanted to create a chat bot for spectators at the 2016 Masters golf tournament it sponsors. Using tablets on site or their own mobile phones, golf fans would be able to ask the bot questions or banter with it. The only problem? IBM couldn’t find enough annotated golf-related training data.

So IBM sent Mighty AI a large body of information culled from the web that it thought was related to golf. Mighty AI found workers familiar with golf, had them tag information specific to the sport and compose questions and answers based on the material. That data became the basis of IBM’s Watson golf conversational agent.

Accenture and Intel see Mighty AI as a way to help their customers deploy artificial intelligence apps and algorithms more quickly, letting them use Accenture services to set them up and Intel software and chips to run them.

“What we like about Mighty AI is that for a lot of our customers the first step is annotating data — they need that before they can build on top of our chips and software for AI,” said Ken Elefant, Intel Capital managing director for software and security. “With Mighty AI all of this annotation will happen at a much faster rate which will help Intel customers deploy much more quickly.”

Some companies handle the problem by trying to label data themselves, and others use general crowdsourcing software like Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower, Bencke said.

Mighty AI has more than 100,000 specialists in 155 countries and it rates how they handle tasks. If the person does well, he or she gets paid more and gets offered more jobs. A poor job will generate feedback and eventually lead to termination if the person doesn’t improve.

Mighty AI dubs its product “Training Data as a Service,” a riff on cloud product categories like “Infrastructure as a Service” and “Software as a Service.”

Previous investors Madrona Venture Group, Foundry Group and New Enterprise Associates also participated in this funding round.

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