Every office worker understands the drain of repetition. Whether it’s data entry, filing, or even answering phones, the tasks that amount to simply “working in an office” hold little appeal for most aspiring professionals. But those repetitive tasks are important. Somebody’s got to do them . . . don’t they?
In an age of Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence is forging a new career path for the bored and demotivated. Tech-savvy startup founders are ideally positioned to save the day (or at least many-an-office-worker’s sanity) and create a new concept of work.
Miku Hirano is an AI scientist, entrepreneur, and young mother who has always hated boring, repetitive tasks. Moreover, she is a staunch believer that AI disruption industries shouldn’t be limited to flashy electric cars and smart cities. All of this inspired her to become cofounder and CEO of Cinnamon, Inc.
Cinnamon is on a mission to hand over the grunt work to machines. It’s enjoyed fast success, both in Japan and overseas, even becoming one of the Forbes “25 Machine Learning Startups to Watch in 2019.”
Removing the grunt work to make room for career passion is a true Technovate sentiment. GLOBIS Deputy Dean Dr. Jorge Calvo sat down with Hirano to discuss her work and vision for the future.
A Moonshot Goal to Support Humble Office Workers
Dr. Jorge Calvo: Do you consider yourself a moonshot thinker?
Miku Hirano: I’m not sure how closely I fit the definition of “moonshot,” but my personal goal is to move humankind forward.
If you think about human history and primitive eras, there were several points of irreversible technology. First we found fire. Then we made tools to help us make food. Later, we invented cars, trains, and the computer. Now we have the internet and smartphones.
Take smartphones, for example. Before smartphones, it was quite normal for us to not have access to the internet all the time. But now, if we leave our phones at home, we feel completely lost. That dependency is irreversible, and it’s the kind of technology I want to make—the kind that moves humankind forward.
Calvo: Where does your inspiration come from?
Hirano: From my family. Specifically, from my first son.
Around when I had him, I heard some really sad news about a young Japanese office worker, about twenty-four years old, who committed suicide because she was working too much. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Other people in Japan have committed suicide due to overwork (what we call karoshi in Japanese).
Currently, especially in Japan but really everywhere, people work too much. It feels normal, but it really shouldn’t. After my son was born, I started to think, “This isn’t the kind of work environment we should leave for the next generation.” Especially now, when we have so many AI-based solutions.
Calvo: There are so many AI disruption industries nowadays. How did you settle on entrepreneurship as your solution?
Hirano: My major at Ochanomizu University and degree at Tokyo University Graduate School were both in computer science. For most students in that field, a master’s in science is pretty normal, so I followed that path. I also did some internships during my bachelor’s at Goldman Sachs, Panasonic, Recruit, those kinds of companies.
But I found I wasn’t really good at being an employee, let alone an office worker. So, after graduation, I went for my master’s degree at the same time as I founded my first company.
Calvo: How did you form your vision for Cinnamon?
Hirano: I’ve always hated boring, repetitive tasks, and that has a lot to do with our vision.
I was also very inspired by a book I read that said refocusing negative feelings is the key to starting a new business or service. Basically, needs are based on negative feelings. When you feel, “This is so annoying,” that’s a business opportunity.
Calvo: That’s actually one of the core concepts of moonshot thinking. You take something really painful, or something you really hate, and you change it.
Hirano: Exactly. And that’s what we’re doing at Cinnamon.
AI Disruption Industries in Japan vs. the World
Calvo: How is AI advancing in Japan?
Hirano: Well first, you have to understand that there are four AI fields:
- Business AI: This is for office workers, handling things like call centers, voice assistants, and documentation.
- Internet AI: This is like Uber or TikTok, which use machine learning to provide better user experiences.
- Factory AI: This is what Amazon is doing, using robots for storage.
- Autonomous AI: This refers to AI for self-driving cars, that kind of thing.
Business AI is the field Cinnamon is in. We opened our sales front in the US so we could compare with our American competitors, and we’ve seen that Japan is a full year ahead compared to the US. They’re doing things now that we were doing a year ago in Japan.
In China, we couldn’t even find any competitors. Investors there are only interested in self-drive and other “sexy” AI projects. Other “unsexy” AI companies cannot get the Chinese to invest.
Spicing Things Up for Office Workers with Cinnamon Innovation
Calvo: Cinnamon isn’t your first startup. Can you tell us about your founder’s journey?
Hirano: My first startup (acquired by MIXI) really wanted to be a global company, but we didn’t make it. That was my biggest regret, so I decided to try again. For Cinnamon, I founded outside of Japan to make the global leap easier.
Calvo: So going global was part of your vision from the start?
Hirano: Yes, our vision is to become the number one global business AI company. Our ideal goal is to remove all the repetitive and boring tasks from the world. That’s the challenge we set for ourselves. It’s still a ways off, because our products are limited, but we’re hiring AI researchers very aggressively.
Calvo: What kind of AI disruption does Cinnamon provide?
Hirano: Most of our clients are banks and insurance companies that need to do lots of data input with 100% accuracy. That means they often use two or three people to do data entry for just one document. So when companies lack labor, employees need to work longer.
What we’re doing is replacing one of those people with AI. AI can remove 30–50% of the burden, and it can run for 24 hours a day. Cost differentiation and speed are also values we provide.
Calvo: This sounds like what many people are worried about—that AI disruption will replace human jobs. What do you say to that?
Hirano: There are a lot of negative things in the media about AI, but a lot of it is click bait. They say AI is going to replace human work—those kinds of things. But the truth is, all technologies replace human work.
One hundred years ago, people needed fire to cook, but now we can push a button. Fifty years ago in Japan, train stations needed a person to stand at each gate and take tickets. Now we have ticket machines and passes. We look at those old practices and see that it doesn’t need to be that way anymore. Humans today are working too much, and we at Cinnamon believe it doesn’t need to be that way.
Calvo: What does Cinnamon’s AI actually do?
Hirano: Our main products are Cinnamon AI, which is a document reader, and Rossa Voice, which is a speech text engine. Both are based on recognition.
Of course, humans can do more than just recognize. If I read a document you send me, I can recognize natural language inferences, or that you want to emphasize this or that. AI can’t do that yet, but as AI disruption industries grow, so does machine learning.
Calvo: How far do you think AI will develop in the next five years?
Hirano: The truth is that AI still can’t do a lot of what people expect—not just for us at Cinnamon, but for any AI. Having said that, AI doesn’t develop the way the human brain does. If we’re talking about writing a novel, actually yeah, the current technology can handle that because there’s no correct answer for a novel. But if you want to write a report at the university level, that’s very difficult for AI.
The way I see it, there are four phases to innovation. It starts with geeks, then big corporations, then small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), then individuals.
For example, if you think about websites in the 90s, only geeks were really excited about making websites. Then big corporations like Dentsu started spending millions of dollars to make their sites. After that, SMEs got onboard. And now, even individuals can have their own site for free.
Currently, AI technologies are in the second stage, large enterprises. But in five years, the AI systems will go to SMEs. What’s holding us back is scalability. But we’ll get there.