Democratising Science: Leveraging AI for Humanity

DR VIVIAN CHAN

Co-Founder and CEO, Sparrho

Scientific discovery is central to our everyday lives; it engineered the crops used to make our morning breakfast and created the technology on which you’re reading this. Science, at its core, is simple: it’s about exploring the world and understanding how it works. But the British Science Association recently found that over a quarter of the UK population feel that ‘science is not for them’. For one reason or another, we’ve stopped seeing science as integral to society – it is merely the realm of ‘scientists’ – occurring in high-tech labs and secret basements.

If we can re-engage with this vital scientific process, though, it could be the key to us connecting with each other in more meaningful, intelligent ways and thereby driving innovation forward. But, ironically, the means of this reconnection is perhaps the very thing that has fostered our disassociation in the first place: technology.

As the founder of a tech company focused on democratising science, Sparrho, I have witnessed first-hand just how well these two disciplines can go together to foster intelligent communication and connectivity. At Sparrho, we use AI algorithms and machine learning to massively cut down on research times for scientists, which average over 195 hours per year, and leveraging their efforts, we are able to provide users with three- minute digests on key topics and cutting- edge research. Drawing on a database of over 60 million research papers and patents, we are remedying the fact that 50% of doctors use Wikipedia as their primary source of information on specific conditions – a worrying development found in a 2014 report.

With tech facilitating new research, it can then be used in the development phase to create a fairer and more engaged society. And this is already happening as I write – it is shaping our futures in ways that will reach us sooner than we think.

So how did we get here? What was the spark that ignited our passion for democratising science? What is our vision and what does this tell us about the place of artificial intelligence in our future, and indeed the place of humans as co-inventors of that future?

Sparrho was born of frustration – about the inaccessibility of much of the data generated by the more than 2% of GDP spent on R&D each year, and the nearly 2 million scientific publications per year. Even those engaged as professionals in science struggle to stay across the material that is directly relevant to their speciality, not to mention all of the other material that might be of relevance, or even ground breaking, if they only knew about it.

As a young venture capitalist, armed with my undergraduate science degree, I soon found myself challenged when trying to get across all of the R&D and scientific publications and filtering out the relevant data. It soon became apparent to me that the volumes of data now available had become unmanageable from an individual perspective. I also soon realised that we would need new “unit values of science”, in other words, new content types relevant to different user groups, as a path to democratisation.

Curation and summarisation of the vast amounts of scienti c data became key pillars as part of this journey. Leveraging cutting edge technology, we developed a hybrid augmented approach, as the best way to solve this problem: – using AI to do the aggregation and recommendation, to reduce time and maximise output from the human experts. Using this hybrid approach, we have been able to massively cut down on research time for scientists, providing users with three-minute digests on key topics and cutting-edge research.

The key to the Sparrho platform is that the strengths of both AI and human beings are combined into one innovative package. The AI is best at filtering vast amounts of data according to key words, which our 400k+ active users pin onto what we call “pinboards”. Human scientists are still better than machines at making the non-linear connections that we refer to as insights. And as we capture how humans think and relate different pieces of information together, the AI learns and becomes ever more useful as a curator and mentor.

Of course, the aim of Sparrho is not just to create a large database of scientific knowledge. It is to stimulate creativity and innovation by bringing the latest cross-cutting research and understanding to both scientists and the broader community. With tech facilitating new research, it can then be used in the development phase to create a fairer and more engaged society. Science is not just for scientists in the traditional sense. It is of enormous importance to every one of us in our everyday lives and in many jobs that need to understand the latest technology and its implications. How many business angels and venture capitalists, for example, would like to have the latest, curated research at their fingertips, in simple and ready to use form, when they are making investment decisions about ‘the next big thing’. And how many individuals would love to have access to the latest thinking on cancer or arthritis treatments, for example?

In our digital age, connecting with one another seems easier than ever. Just reach into your pocket, pull out your smartphone and another person – or their social media profile – is only a few taps away. But despite this instant access, paradoxically we’re also living in an era of massive societal division and cynicism towards the truth and facts.

In order to fully democratise science, we need to ensure that it is seen as an integral part of our society and the way we go about things. Everyone is aware of the latest health tech advances, personal wearable devices, 3D printed artificial organs, etc. Crucially, the increasing challenge and increasing pace of climate change means that we all need to work together, using the best tools we have – human and artificial – to find science based global solutions.

In a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, only 26% of over 5,000 adults surveyed could identify five factual statements compared to statements of opinion presented to them and only 32% showed an interest in the news. So, we can reach our friends and even strangers across the globe easily, but we don’t seem to be hearing messages other than our own. Stuck in our echo chambers, this lack of engagement with facts and others’ perspectives means not just fear-mongering percentages but it has worrying consequences for all aspects of society, especially science.

However, in order to fully engage society as a whole, science needs to reflect that society too. There is an alarming global gender gap in science. With the UN announcing their International Day of Women and Girls in Science, they are remedying the fact that in 2017 only 24% of STEM graduates in the UK were women. I am proud to say that at Sparrho we are a globally representative company; we are 50% female, we collectively hold 14 passports and speak over 10 languages, and we are one of the about 210 companies that have signed up to the Tech Talent Charter in the UK to drive diversity into all parts of the sector, drawing in big name employers such as Microsoft, the BBC and Cancer Research.

Most importantly, the role of science and tech in society moves beyond concrete advancements and affects our capacity for imagination also. If we can re-engage with the science that forms the fabric of our lives, we will not only help humanity in the years to come but also inspire future generations to imagine a better world; one that is fairer, meaningfully connected and that doesn’t merely accept the status quo.


Dr Vivian Chan is founder & CEO of Sparrho, the only platform in the world that democratizes science by aggregating, curating, and summarising cutting-edge research using augmented intelligence – the convergence of AI and human expertise. Dr Chan founded Sparrho as a tool to help rectify the inherent barriers that exist within the scientific ecosystem.

Since founding the industry-leading start-up, Dr Chan has had the opportunity to address the EU Ministers of Research and Innovation about Open Science, discussing the pressing need for scientific information to be accessible to all. She currently sits on the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Digital Economy Advisory Group.

In the Autumn of 2018, Dr Chan was named one of the UK’s Top 100 BAME leaders in Technology by the FT and Inclusive Boards. She has also had the honour of being named in the MIT Tech Review’s 35 Under 35 Innovators in 2017, and the Top 5 Asian Stars in UK Tech in 2018.

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