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</IMAI Virtual Conversational AI event – 21st January 2021>

Published on 27 January 2021 by Web editor

Blog, IMAI news

Last week, the Industrial Masters in Artificial Intelligence Programme (IMAI) team held a roundtable on Conversational AI. This is the second instalment in an exciting new series of events organised by the IMAI team. Each online event introduces a theme in AI and features a panel discussion from industry experts who give their personal insight.

The first online event in this series was held in November 2020 and focused on AI within the FinTech industry. The next event is scheduled for 24th February and will focus on Health and AI at the Point of Contact.

This series of events is part of the ongoing project to respond to the digital skills gap in the UK and boost the quality of postgraduate students joining the AI industry. AI is emerging as a benefit to so many areas of business and society, and can help enhance or improve the data strategy for businesses. At this roundtable, our panellists explored and discussed how this is the case with Conversational AI.

Event panellists

Phil D Hall – Conversational AI Architect, Elzware Ltd.

Phil made his first ChatBot in 1982. He then got involved in an argument with a ChatBot in a bar in a virtual world in 1997, which set him up to be on the cutting edge of conversational AI professionally for the best part of 20 years.

He’s delivered scores of systems; from virtual people, to offendable blobs. His collaborative method is simple, use best of breed tools, methods and approaches, but always with pragmatism and social scientific context.

Darren Jefford – Principal Group Program Manager, Microsoft Conversational AI

Darren has over 25 years’ experience in the software engineering field, working closely with many organisations and industries around the world to deliver complex software solutions.

Darren has worked at Microsoft for close to 20 years in a variety of roles, including building some of the first conversational experiences for customers back in 2016, before moving into a lead role in the Microsoft Conversational AI engineering team which provide a wide range of Conversational AI capabilities to developers around the world and powers many complex conversational experiences across a broad range of conversational canvases and devices.

Verena Rieser – Professor at Heriot-Watt University and Founder of Alana

Verena is a professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where she leads research on Natural Language Generation and Multimodal Dialogue Systems. She is also a co-founder of the Conversational AI company Alana and Director of Ethics for the National Robotarium.

Verena was recently awarded a Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship by the Royal Society and she is PI of several publicly funded research projects and industry awards.

Paul Shepherd – Founder and CEO of We Build Bots

Paul has founded 2 other digital businesses, 1 of which currently employs 40 staff, has offices in the UK and US and was valued at £16m in the last funding round.

He stepped back in 2016 to focus on We Build Bots, and speaks at a number of online events and expos.

Event summary

The session started with the IMAI project lead, Zara Johnson, who spoke to the group about the Institute of Coding’s (IoC) aims and progress to date. A roundup of these achievements can be found on the IoC’s latest infographic.

Zara spoke about the IMAI programme and the benefits that could be offered by collaboration. The IMAI team is reaching out to companies that work in or with AI to understand the specific requirements of their business and partner them with the most relevant higher education institute that could benefit their work.

The work the IMAI is conducting

It was exciting to give more detail to the group on this industry and government collaboration to develop the next generation of AI experts in the UK, and the feedback received was that this was a necessary and needed initiative for the UK AI industries. Further information about the IMAI Programme, as well as useful links and documents, can be found here.

Harshaan Sandu from the Office for AI continued by explaining the government’s aims and objectives within the AI sector, and how the relationships held with the individual businesses are so important to this initiative going forward. More details about this can be found on the Office for AI’s website:

Harshaan also introduced the UK AI Council’s AI Roadmap, which offers advice and next steps that the government can take to ensure AI is both an enabler and driver of the post-COVID economic recovery. Further information about the AI Roadmap can be found here.

Working alongside the Office for AI, the UK AI Council will be arranging workshops in early 2021 to engage on the topics raised and they are keen for those who wish to get involved to register their interest here.

The panellists then provided statements about their own experience and the work they have conducted in Conversational AI and discussed what Conversational AI means to them and how it can support businesses today. They also took questions from the audience, speaking in more depth on topics of interest.

The feedback and contributions from roundtable attendees were extremely positive, with Professor Kulvinder Panesar from the University of Bradford messaging to say: “Thank you all for your expertise, insight and fantastic roundtable discussions on this exciting but challenging conversational AI field – which has suffered from the hype many a times – and thank you for your great contributions”.

Going forward, the IMAI team is excited to work with everyone who attended to assist them in supporting the next generation of AI specialists.

If your company would be interested in learning more about the IMAI programme, please email us at and follow us on Twitter @IMAIProgramme where we will post more details about the next roundtable event and future series.

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