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My Friend AI app aims to help youngsters with mental health issues

Strategia Data Sciences is developing a platform so schools can use technology to aid their students

An image of Stephen Smith, CEO of Strategia Data Sciences, a man with short cropped grey hair wearing a T-Shirt and a dark jacket
Strategia Data Sciences CEO Stephen Sharp

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It took me a while to get what Strategia Data Sciences’ project is all about.

The company, which has offices at Canary Wharf’s tech community – Level39 – has created My Friend, a digital platform aimed at helping identify and address mental health issues in children

This is a big problem. In 2022 about 25% of those aged 17-19 were thought to have a mental health disorder (up from one in six in 2021).

Around half of such issues are thought to become established before the age of 14 and about 10% of children aged five to 16 in Great Britain may have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.

I realise after my interview with Strategia CEO, Stephen Sharp, that comprehending what he and the team are trying to do is tough.

That’s because it requires an unpleasant admission that – despite the backdrop of grim statistics – kids are being failed by what’s currently in place and things seem to be getting worse. 

It’s not that the idea of using an AI-powered avatar to help children with their mental health is better than face-to-face human interaction.

It’s that, for many right now there isn’t really a lot of help available – few nets to catch this sort of thing early.

An image of a lonely boy looking out from a rain-streaked glass balcony
Strategia has create My Friend to help address mental health issues in children

building solutions

“Strategia was set up to create innovative technology in areas such as health, education, sustainability and the environment,” said Stephen.

“I spent about 40 years working in investment banking technology and had a good career in that.

“But I wanted to do something that could give back to society, that would help people in need.

“A colleague of mine who works in Dubai had been talking to a school out there about something completely different but there were some proper horrors that really resonated with him.

“So we started talking about how we could build a solution – an application – that might help kids in school. 

“We did some research and found there were lots of text-based things where kids could  send questions and get answers.

“But then, the next thing was they were being told they should talk to a psychologist for $150 an hour.

“We decided we didn’t want to go down that path. Instead, we’ve been working with conversational artificial intelligence since January.

“AI is transformational and we’ve got to the point where we’re running a pilot in a number of countries with children talking to our app and getting the right responses.

“It’s built on the back of ChatGPT – as everything is these days – but we’ve created the model in the middle, which controls the input and output. It’s always supportive, passive and acts as a friend.”

A girl sits alone reading a textbook in a classroom
My Friend offers children a way to interface with their school through an AI-powered app

branding My Friend

Specifically, My Friend features Kano, an avatar designed to appeal to the app’s audience of eight-to-12-year-olds.

“We’ve gone with a non-gendered super hero teddy bear and his pet dog,” said Stephen.

“We didn’t want there to be any gender or race barriers to using the app or to get involved with political issues in what we’re doing. 

“The platform works in partnership with a child’s school. Staff can monitor the conversations a child has with it so, if a kid is being naughty in class, for example, they might be able to see why.

“It’s important, of course, that the children know this up front – that they’re aware their issues can be addressed.

“The platform forms a neutral, objective interface between the child and the school and removes any bias. 

“It’s also designed to remove any concern a child might have about talking to an adult if they have a problem. 

“With My Friend, they’re talking to a character who’s on their wavelength.

“It’s not just communicating about their challenges either – during testing, children have asked Kano about dinosaurs, for example, and the platform can give them information like this too.

“At present the application is browser-based, but we’re working on turning it into an app which could be accessed via the iPads kids are routinely given.

“Today there are 740million children in primary schools – if we help only 0.01%, that’s beginning to change the way people think.”

Much has been written about the potential fragility of AI – it’s capacity to simply make up plausible-sounding facts and present them as truth in what the tech community charmingly refer to as “hallucinations”. 

But the Strategia is well aware of the potential pitfalls and believes it has created enough safeguards and guide rails to prevent My Friend pushing out nonsense.

A boy sits alone with a teddy bear on some wooden planks
Mental health issues can start early in childhood

safeguarding My Friend’s users

“We’ve been really prescriptive about the responses it gives,” said Stephen.

“If a kid wants help, the app will seek to understand what the problem is and present a congenial approach to the conversation.

“Everything we’ve seen it produce has been accurate – we’ve asked it all kinds of nasty things, including whether it will help build a bomb and we’ve always had the right responses.

“In that case, it simply told me it was illegal and changed the subject. 

“We’re precise in what we do, so our first question was how we get the technology to stay honest and protect the children using it.”

My Friend is still at the testing phase so Stephen and the team don’t yet have all the answers.

They’re still working on how schools will use the platform, which might see conversations colour-coded to help organisations identify potential problems – but feedback has been very positive.

Stephen was keen to stress that no personal data on the children is collected by Strategia, with only the schools able to see who is talking to Kano. 

Based at Level39 since October, the team is keen to collaborate locally as the project unfolds.

tacking a range of issues with My Friend

“We’re trying to build something that can address a whole spectrum of problems children face,” said Stephen.

“I live in a small village in Buckinghamshire and, until I spoke to a local school, didn’t realise the poverty in what I thought was an affluent area. 

“There, a single parent might have three jobs – their child might have to go to school alone, come back alone and cook their own tea.

“If that’s a seven-year-old, for example, that neglect is frightening.

“For children everyday life can be a problem and we want to help.

“If we save one life by doing this, it will be worthwhile.”

key details

You can find out more about Strategia Data Sciences and My Friend via the company’s website as it continues to develop and trial the technology.

Find out more about Strategia Data Sciences here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How Creative Virtual is taming large language model AI

Cabot Square-based global leader talks about conversational chatbot technology and ChatGPT

Chris Ezekiel of Canary Wharf-based Creative Virtual – image by Matt Grayson

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Wharf Life newspaper was founded by Archant, a publishing company, to serve the area around Canary Wharf,” states ChatGPT 3.5, confidently, when asked who created this paper.

It sounds plausible, going on to say: “Archant is a well-established media company with a history of creating local newspapers and publications”.  

This demonstrates one of the issues inherent with AI large language models. They are prone to making things up.

Wharf Life was founded by Massey Maddison Ltd in 2019 and has no connection to Archant – a business that used to run the East London And Docklands Advertiser before it collapsed into administration and was subsequently taken over by US-owned media firm Newsquest.

Imagine, for a minute, that my question had been about something much more important than the vanity of asking about this newspaper – that the answer given might have serious consequences for me or the organisation I’m contacting through a chatbot. 

With AI finding its way into all sorts of areas of life – including Newsquest’s reporting, incidentally – trust becomes an issue that should be uppermost in the minds of those interacting with it, either as readers or customers.

It’s a topic that’s been on the mind of Chris Ezekiel and his team at Creative Virtual for some time.

He founded the conversational artificial intelligence company on the Isle Of Dogs 20 years ago, investing its profits to grow it into a global business that won the Queen’s Award For Enterprise in 2017.

Now based in Canary Wharf, the firm is considered a leader in its field, competing with the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Google in a sector that until 12 months ago was largely below the public radar.

That all changed in 2022 with the public release of ChatGPT – an event that sent the world giddy with the prospect of what large language models might be capable of.

“It’s been a seismic shift for our sector,” said Chris, who is based at 25 Cabot Square.

“We’d been looking at these models for about three years but everybody was surprised by the impact that this launch by OpenAI had.

“What’s been amazing has been the proliferation of other big companies coming out with their own competitive versions. 

“One of the things about running an independent company in the way we do is that you have to keep making profit to invest.

“This makes the choices you make as founder and CEO more critical.

Chris’ business is always looking to the future of organisations’ interactions with customers and employees

“There are always ups and downs when running a company – my role is to make sure there are more highs than lows. 

“However, our setup also means that we can take a longer term view when it comes to developing products, alongside the way we work with our customers and the commercial models we adopt.

“One of the things that’s been a massive success for us this year, strategically, is that we immediately offered all our customers completely free proof of concepts related to using this technology to serve their customers and employees – running large language models alongside our chatbot technology.

“It was about asking how they could be used and what the concerns might be.

“At launch, they were much more susceptible to getting stuff wrong and making things up with no way of telling where those errors came from.

“So it was about working with our clients to establish what the challenges were.

“Many had seen the models and thought they could save a fortune – writing stuff for them and answering their customers’ and employees’ questions.

“The business teams were focused on that but then they realised the risks associated with this technology and realised it would need to involve the legal and compliance teams.

“We literally saw companies developing solutions they wanted to deploy for real, while in parallel setting up ethical AI teams, who we were working with to address their concerns.”

Essentially, developing those proofs of concept meant Creative Virtual – which works with the likes of HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group – learnt a great deal about what it would take to make use of the things ChatGPT and other similar models were offering in large organisations.

“Three themes came out of this work – one is trust in the models and the content they create,” said Chris.

“The second is control – to use this technology, organisations need the ability to make sure they can override the models in certain cases.

“For example, if a customer wanted to replace a lost credit card, you need a very structured process that is compliant, trustworthy, accurate, reproducible and consistent – all of the things we’ve always provided as a company.

“There are ways to do this by training AI on the documents, policies, procedures and product information from a particular organisation.

“On top of that you can also create rules to override the model in certain circumstances.   

“The Gluon release of our V-Person technology offers a blended approach – AI created content from large language models and human-curated content, which is perfect for organisations which are trying to create accurate, trustworthy interactions.

“The third theme that came up was experience. As a 20-year-old company, we know what it takes to act as AI consultants.

“We’ve had to change our company to be aware of all the different models that are out there.

“Some of these large language models are good at some things, but not so good at others so it’s our experience that allows us to help these large organisations, who want to understand how they can be used and the benefits.

“We’re focused on delivering the control and trust they need through our products and the expertise of our people, to take full advantage of this technology.”

The emergence of large language models has also broadened Creative Virtual’s approach as it explores different sectors and applications for its products.

“It’s changed the company a lot,” said Chris.

“We worked with an accounting company in Australia – MYOB – to use generative AI to create content with a human in control to sign it off.

“They’ve just won a major customer experience award having followed through on a proof of concept with us to create a project.

“That’s the joy we get from this kind of innovation – working very closely with customers who realise the benefits of what this tech can offer.

“This type of AI can provide lots of solutions for sectors such as healthcare and government too – any organisation that has lots of documents.

“Historically we’ve mostly been focused on customer services and resources for employees but we’re now starting to deploy solutions in sales.

“A classic case is what we’re doing on the travel side.

“Currently, if you walk into a travel agent, the person there helping to advise on a trip might sometimes refer to their own or a colleague’s experience.

“There’s no reason a chatbot couldn’t be used to do something similar – using content to show what other customers’ experiences of a destination have been like – an advocate that’s scaleable.”  

Chris says companies are developing architecture to make interacting with multiple devices and services through AI possible – image by Matt Grayson

As for the future, Chris is excited by the prospect of further leaps forward too.

“I think the physical form of AI is going to be an interesting one, like having your own robot butler which interacts with the devices in your home, such as your fridge, to keep an eye on supplies, or your smart watch to monitor vitamin intake,” said Chris.

“I think that the future is joining up the AI to connected devices.

“People use the term hyper-personalisation, where organisations know lots of things about you.

“Even with issues of privacy, people often don’t mind revealing personal details if it improves their experience.

“In the future, you won’t even have to think about how you interact with the AI.

“People are already using their voices more to control devices. 

“Organisations will know the context of the conversation you’re having and will switch to different channels, so you can start off on the phone, then move to the web, with everything seamlessly connected together.

“We’re starting to develop architecture that will make this really easy to do.

“The big companies we work with talk about the composable enterprise, where we can slot all these different systems together.

“Organisations then don’t have to worry what’s coming from this company or that firm – they can select the technology that’s best of breed, and platforms which create an overall digital customer experience.”  

Find out more about Creative Virtual and its products and services here

Read more: How Level39-based WyzePay offers discounts at MMy Wood Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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