Could A.I. run an entire economy?

Honu could take business automation to wild new terrain with autonomous agents

Hello there,

Autonomous A.I. agents are a hot topic of discussion right now, and today’s startup wants to play a key part in making them reach their potential.

Scroll down to read all about Honu. Paying subscribers get the full story, including one of the most passionate and interesting ‘Vision’ sections I’ve written about any startup in this newsletter yet.

Meanwhile, we’re currently lining up startups to feature in 2024. January is starting to fill up, but if you know a very early-stage B2B or deep tech startup in the UK that we should be profiling, drop me a line.

– Martin

Honu could help autonomous A.I. agents take business automation to wild new terrain

One of the most promising aspects of the big shift to A.I. that we’re currently living through is the possibility for smarter automation. 

There has been much talk lately about autonomous agents who operate on the internet, carrying out tasks on behalf of their user. 

While that might make some people justifiably concerned about what happens when the latest A.I. tech gets to spread its wings a bit more, assuming it happens safely, there’s a fascinating bull case to examine.

How might this trend play out in business? One place to look for a possible answer is Honu, a startup with a vision of “autonomous agents working in symbiosis with humans” to make better decisions.

London-based Honu is building a technology layer that will allow others to create decision-making A.I. apps on top. Founder and CEO Imad Riachi gives the example of an app that takes the role of a chief marketing officer, and explains how it would work:

“Businesses would hook up their data, and then the platform itself will be able to look at their business and identify the components that need to be improved, strategically thinking about where it's best basically to deploy the resources. 

“At the end of the day, a business is a system-optimisation problem. You've got a finite amount of resources that you're trying to create economic value from.”

So in the example of an app for CMOs, it might identify a low conversion rate on the website and suggest solutions. These solutions might include using another autonomous agent to carry out the work for you.

Giving an example of customer service, Riachi envisions something smarter than the chatbots and simple automated pipelines widely used today. 

He suggests autonomous agents with different specialisms, like data science and sales, working together with a customer support agent to provide a more personalised response to both serve the customer better and improve their lifetime value through relevant and highly targeted upsells.

Building ‘decision infrastructure’

To enable all of this, Honu is building what Riachi sees as a missing component in business tech today: ‘decision infrastructure’.

He describes this as “a layer that is able to understand and build dynamic models of the business and the ecosystem and make it available for any intelligent system that is running on top of that; it could be an app, it could be an autonomous agent.”

Riachi explains that the tech builds a “cognitive model” of a business, and provides a shared framework for different autonomous agents to work from, allowing them to collaborate with each other.

“Instead of having agents just doing one thing, looking at maybe marketing or finance only, we're creating a nervous system that allows everyone to connect together to be able to optimise something.”

He says that the tech could be used across the whole of a small businesses, or in departments of larger enterprises. The plan is to offer it as a platform-as-a-service model.

Letting the machines take the reins

One important question is how much businesses will be willing to hand over control of critical business functions to A.I. But Riachi doesn’t see an issue here. 

Making a comparison with autonomous vehicles, he sees what Honu is developing as closer to advanced cruise control or automatic parking than full self-driving capabilities. And I can imagine most businesses would prefer that. At least for now.

“This isn't about giving up control. It's about giving the business owners superhuman capabilities. It’s a combination of human and machine that is stronger than either machine alone or human alone.”

The tech is built to offer interaction points, where humans make key decisions, he says. The platform is designed to give clear and easy-to-understand reasoning for its recommendations. Riachi likens it to having a team of experts on hand to provide insight and support to a business; it’s just that these experts will be A.I. rather than human consultants.

While Honu plans to develop apps on top of its technology to show what’s possible, third-party developers will be able to use it to develop applications. And Riachi says some of the tech will eventually be open-sourced, allowing others to use the code to power applications potentially far removed from business decision-making.

The story so far

Riachi has a wide range of experience that feeds into what Honu is building. He did a degree in computer engineering, a masters in robotics and autonomous systems, and a PhD in neuroscience.

He went on to work at companies including Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and OVO Energy in roles increasingly focused on data, A.I., and automation. During a stint working at Essentia Analytics around 10 years ago, he met John S. Nolan, who now is the CTO at Honu, part of what Riachi says is a team of 10 working on the startup.

He says the idea for Honu was inspired by watching his father build a small business while he was growing up. He saw his father make preventable mistakes, and eventually realised there was an opportunity for A.I. to assist people in that situation.

Honu has been in stealth from its beginnings in 2021 until only a few weeks ago when it put up a website revealing some of what it’s been working on.

The startup has developed an internal proof of concept and will be building demo apps at the beginning of next year, one of which will be focused on ecommerce. This will be used to validate the offering with small businesses, while Honu will also be approaching larger enterprises about partnerships.

“We’re not thinking about this as a product-market fit phase, because we are at our essence, I think, a deep tech company,” says Riachi.

“So we're still in the technological de-risking phase with an investigation of the different go-to market strategies. But once we have this proven with external validation, the second phase is going to be the product-market fit.

“I really want to do something that I have a personal connection to, that I'm super excited about that could really kind of shape not just how businesses are run, but how economies are run, can democratise business creation, and can create opportunities.”

Go deeper on Honu

Read much more about their funding, investment plans, big vision of automated economies, competition, and challenges:


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