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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

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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’s Gluon software is next level for chatbot tech

Founder and CEO of the Cannon Workshops-based company, Chris Ezekiel, talks global growth

Creative Virtual founder and CEO Chris Ezekiel – image Matt Grayson

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All in all, 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for Chris Ezekiel and Creative Virtual – the company he founded on the Isle Of Dogs in November 2003. In 12 months time, he and his colleagues will be celebrating its 20th birthday.

But before that happens, there’s the small matter of becoming a father for the second time and – business-wise – the firm is set for a major release of its V-Person software, named Gluon.

The software is the platform that has allowed Creative Virtual to grow into a global concern, from its base next to Canary Wharf at Cannon Workshops

From there, housed in the honey brick of the Grade II listed former cooperage beside West India Quay, Chris and his team compete with the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Google in the field of conversational artificial intelligence (AI).

Together, they have built a business with global reach, servicing clients across the world including the likes of HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group – one of the firm’s first clients and still a customer today. 

In 2022, Creative Virtual has operations in the UK, the US, Europe, Australia, Singapore and in India. It’s a Docklands business trading with the world.

“We’re still independent, which is a bit unusual for a tech company in the fast-paced world of AI,” said Chris.

“I always started it for the long-term, and over the years we’ve had quite a few offers to purchase the company, which I continue to refuse.

“I’m just enjoying it and we’re competing in that area we’re operating in – conversational AI is all the rage now.

“For me, it’s about working with incredible people who are passionate about innovation, creativity and technology – some things are more important than money.

“We don’t have investors so what we do isn’t linked to their short term goals.

“While Elon Musk has recently bought Twitter, I reflected the other day that he could not buy Creative Virtual. It’s great to have that independence.”

The company’s position comes through its success developing and implementing chatbots for clients. 

These might be used by a firm’s customers, employees or its customer services personnel as a resource to assist clients.

Gluons hold quarks together at a subatomic level so they can become atoms and ultimately everything in the universe

With almost 20 years in business and numerous accolades – among them a Queen’s Award For Enterprise in 2017 – Chris said the company continued to prioritise innovation, investing its profits to grow.

“It was always the dream to become a global company,” he said. “But you don’t often get a chance to step back and consider what you’ve built.

“We pride ourselves on having a really quirky, passionate team – a really eclectic mix of individuals. It also allows us to be adaptable and to work in markets all around the world.

“Travelling to these different locations really brings it home and having the fantastic customers we do really helps. 

“Being able to explore creativity and innovation with those companies and partners has been amazing over the years. It’s what keeps us going.”

That ongoing drive has resulted in Gluon, which Chris said would be the foundation of Creative Virtual’s work for many years to come.

It’s aptly named after an elementary particle that holds quarks together to form subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons – the basis for atoms and ultimately everything in the universe.

It’s also a reflection of the Creative Virtual founder and CEO’s love of physics.

“I have a picture of Richard Feynman above my desk with his quote that you should not fool yourself and that you’re also the easiest person to fool,” said Chris.

“That’s something I always focus on because it’s really important to keep things in perspective, to keep them real.

“With Gluon we’re very excited because, while we do small software releases every month or so and major ones roughly every 12 months, this is the kind that only comes along once every four years.”

Gluon as software bears some similarities to gluon particles in that they both connect elements to create something of greater complexity and function.

Gluon is designed to work within the composable enterprise system

“First of all, the new software allows us to integrate our system with lots of other systems at a large enterprise,” said Chris.

“That might include CRM systems and data management systems, for example. 

“There’s a lot of buzz around AI and we’ve seen chatbots that use machine learning as a black box without any control over the responses the system is giving.

“We’ve always taken a different path, combining AI with humans overseeing the system, and Gluon will make that easier.

“The way we’re combining those two elements is unique in the industry and Gluon makes it super easy for organisations to use.

“The way it’s configured and the reports that come out of it make it really efficient and also controllable.

“There’s also a lot of interest in something called the ‘Composable Enterprise’ which is all about plugging systems together.

“Gluon fits perfectly into that to become a key piece of the jigsaw.

“We intend to launch in the early part of next year. We already have a test version available and have done 50 demonstrations so far.

“The feedback has been incredible. We sell direct to customers, but we also work through some partners in the world and everybody’s been unanimous in their positive responses.

“It’s a great way to develop, because the feedback is very specific.

“Taking our time is very important, because we’ve been able to listen to what people are saying while we are developing the software.

“We can be more flexible with our customers because we don’t have pressure from investors.

“It’s funny for me on a personal level, because people wondered whether having a 16-month-old now and another on the way in February would change my view about the company and whether it would be time to sell – but it hasn’t one little bit.

“I am often asked how difficult it is to separate the business from my personal life, but my view is that you should give up doing that because it stresses you out.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got to build it into your life – it is your life and you have to find a way to do that.

“Having a supportive group of people around you, both inside work and outside, and having some hobbies and interests is essential. I snowboard and watch West Ham to relax.

“But at the end of the day business is business, you shouldn’t take it too seriously.

“That might sound odd from someone who has to pay all the bills and make sure the people who work for me can pay their bills – but knowing there are more important things in the world keeps me level-headed.

“It’s a balance and as long as you can say overall you’re happy with that balance, then you’re in a good place.

“That’s why I can’t imagine retiring.”

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Read Wharf Life’s e-edition 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
Subscribe To Wharf Life