Dan: Welcome to the Alan Turing podcast, with James Turing and some of the UK’s most exciting forward-thinking business leaders. Today, Alan is famous as the father of computer science and codebreaker of the Nazi Enigma machine and has been celebrated by the BBC as the greatest person of the 20th century. But it wasn’t always that way.
At the time of his passing in 1954, Alan’s life had been defined as much by the tragic way in which he had been treated by the country he had done so much to help as it had by any of his work in mathematics or computing. Alan’s family are keen to do their part in building a kinder and smarter world that Alan envisioned all those years ago – which is why we’ve launched this podcast series in which James Turing, the great-nephew of Alan, will be speaking to some of the women and men shaping Britain today, covering a range of subjects from sustainability and mental health to inclusivity and innovation.
First of all, just a few words about the organisations behind this series. The Turing Trust is a charity run by the Turing family; they refurbish used IT kit, principally from businesses, and install a range of fantastic educational software and provide it to those who need it most. Principally in rural African communities. Their vision is that one day, every child will be able to enjoy the transformative power of technology.
If your business doesn’t yet have a solution for reusing its old IT kit, please do get in touch.
The other organisation behind this series is Boss Digital, which is an agency I launched in 2010 that specialises in helping B2B and professional service firms generate more business online. We’re incredibly proud to be able to help the Turing Trust accelerate their impact.
So, to reiterate: if your company does not have a strategy for its old IT kit, please visit the Turing Trust website and they will help you turn that waste into a tool that will transform the lives of thousands of students.
Over to James.
James: Hi, Kim. Thank you very much for joining us today. Just to kick things off, would you be able to do a quick introduction to yourself and a few of your companies?
Kim: Yes. My name is Kim Antoniou and I’m the founder and inventor of a unique voice recognition engine that has been created for children, but also the founder of a food tech business called Kafoodle that helps businesses manage all of their allergen and nutritional information and be able to share that with their audience.
James: Incredible. Quite a diverse set of businesses, but I guess both are fundamentally built on technology. Is that right?
Kim: Definitely both built on technology. Technology was the key to it. I think that more and more now, when there is a problem, more often than not the solution needs to have some form of tech to back it up. And I think that’s where I seem to have a knack for finding a real-life problem and then come up with some tech that can support a solution.
James: Exactly. I think that’s often the trickiest bit. We can all think that tech must be a solution, but actually, putting the two together is not as easy as it sounds. You can’t just build an app for everything.
Wonderful. So, just to begin, for the first of your three stories, can I ask you for any kind of experience from your early years that may have led you to pursue this path in life?
Kim: Yes, for sure. I grew up with my family – we were property developers – and we were heavily involved in the construction industry. It was quite a pivotal thing for me at a point where I needed to get a new typewriter – this was in the 80s – and I’d heard about these fabulous new word processor typewriters, typewriters that could do things for you, automate things. So I went out on a mission to buy a word processing typewriter and came back with my very first computer, because, why would you spend £200 on a typewriter when you could spend £1,000 on a computer that has a whole MB of memory and can do all these incredible things.
I remember going into my local Dixons and literally being so impatient that I couldn’t even wait for them to come and fit it in and install it in my home – this was a Saturday – the following Monday. I said: “No, let me take it home.” So, I took it home with its 32 floppy disks and was determined that I would be able to set it up. I think I got it home at around 4 pm on the Saturday afternoon and by something like 6 pm on the Sunday evening, I had a c prompt. I was delighted.
It gave me the absolute tech bug. and learning on that very first machine absolutely changed everything for me, because I then realised that technology was the key to so many efficiencies and for me, I then wanted to look at how I could use tech in any way to make things more efficient and for me, more enjoyable. I’ve always enjoyed the whole activity of working with tech.
James: Absolutely. I think for lots of people, tech can sometimes be a joy. For the other half – which I’m afraid I probably fall inside of – it can also be equally frustrating. But I guess it depends on how well the apps etc that you’re using have been developed, right?
Kim: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, because I have a variety of grandchildren, and it’s hysterical when any of them have a tech problem, it’s: “Let’s go and ask nan”.
James: Does nan always respond by asking if they’ve tried turning it off and on?
Kim: No, I now say: “Go to Ollie.” He’s 11 and he knows more than me.
James: Brilliant. Well, I think that’s probably a case of what’s to come.
And the second story I wanted to ask you about was a challenging period in your working life and how that’s influenced the way you manage and lead other people.
Kim: Yes. I think probably from a work and project perspective, the most challenging thing we’ve done is to actually have built the voice recognition technology that powers our reading app, Fonetti.
If I can give you a bit of background, I had this idea that it would be great to build a reading app that would be able to help children, and that was motivated by the fact I have a couple of severely dyslexic children who are now grown up with children of their own who really struggle with reading, and in particular, reading aloud. In fact, they found that terrifying. That, coupled with an experience with my then grandson, who at the time was 2, who was getting a bit fractious on one occasion and I gave him my iPhone, and he just swiped to the next video when his video finished. He instinctively, intrinsically knew what to do without being shown. This was a point where he couldn’t string a sentence together.
So I had this idea to build an app – this was about 7 years ago now – that would allow children to read aloud and it would in some way indicate to them when they were on track and highlight when they weren’t.
I got together with my co-inventor, a phenomenal guy by the name of Bil Bungay, and he and I were talking about this problem and a potential solution over lunch one day. And we said: “Wouldn’t it be great to just build an app? Let’s just do it”. And we started, we used some open source, off the shelf speech technology. but the challenge came when it was evident that the actual speech technology that was required to power a reading application simply didn’t exist. Not anywhere in the world was there something that we could use to power the app.
At that point, you have two choices. You’ve already put quite a bit of time and cash into a project, so you either wait until someone creates the technology or you do what we did and that is to have blind faith in the fact that we had the ability to actually build the technology. And that was a real challenge: finding a partner – and we were very lucky to be introduced to the university of Edinburgh and some very talented world-renowned speech recognition experts, led by the phenomenal Dr Peter Bell. And as I say, we were lucky enough to be introduced to him and he thought that our idea for building a speech recognition engine for reading, in particular, children’s reading, was a very good idea and there certainly wasn’t anything around that did that particular task at the time.
So, we set about building the tech and that really was a massive challenge, because, what he did was take our basic concept, and our basic premise that you would have an off the shelf engine and train it with the appropriate data – and in our context, it was children’s reading – but then we realised we needed to get hold of hours and hours of children reading. So, we spent a year travelling all around the UK – from John O’Groats to Lands End – recording children in classrooms, playgrounds, libraries, coffee shops and sound booths, and basically, to bring together this enormous data set. We worked tirelessly at it. We were relentless in our belief that we would be able to get there in the end. And we did.
It took a long time because it needed all of that exceptional data, but we got a point – I remember the first moment when we could see the words changing colour on a tablet as we spoke in real-time – and it was just an incredible moment. It was for sure one of the most professionally challenging things I’ve ever done.
James: I can imagine. It sounds very much like you had to jump off a cliff edge and have faith that the technology Gods would catch you.
Kim: That’s a lovely way of putting it. And yes, we were lucky the technology Gods caught us.
James: And what gave you that optimism?
Kim: Blind faith and ignorance. I’ve always had a real can-do attitude. I’ve always believed that – especially with technology – there’s nothing you can’t do if you haven’t got time and budget.
And we had time, and we had an ever-growing budget thanks to our own investment and our early-stage investors. So, yeah, I just genuinely never thought we couldn’t do it.
Kafoodle is another business that I created based on personal experience. My husband has a really severe sesame allergy and nearly died in a restaurant due to some bad information back in 2013. I learnt of a new regulation that came to play in 2017 that says all food businesses have got to show allergy information on demand.
So, with my background of building tech systems for construction where you have a HQ and field workers, I transferred the idea (of the HQ and field workers) to restaurants and diners. And we built this incredible tech that helps food businesses; commercial caterers in schools, hospitals, care homes; restaurants; cafes; pub groups, to be able to manage all of their allergy and nutritional information and share that with the public. So, the public can search by their particular nutritional and allergen requirements, and that’s an area that I feel really, really passionate about, because allergies kill people.
There are some incredible laws that are coming into play that are well overdue. One is Natasha’s law which is all about the fact that businesses have got to label food properly with all of the correct allergen information. And then there’s Owen’s law which means that allergens are going to need to be on menus by next year. And I think again, that was a massive challenge, because you’re working with an industry that really is not used to tech. Chefs, kitchens are really not very tech-friendly places.
So, for us, the challenge was convincing the chefs and the business owners that the only safe way to manage their food ingredients was by using technology because it was reliable. And that was a huge challenge. But I’m super proud of the fact that we are now working in 100s of commercial kitchens helping people to manage that. And just helping people to make healthier choices about what they eat.
There are two really important things in life: one is good nutrition and the other is literacy. And I think being able to operate in both of those environments makes me feel happy about getting up in the morning.
James: Exactly. I think there’s a fantastic amount of potential there from what technology can offer, bringing that extra layer of transparency where it’s needed most. It will change the dynamic for many people. I remember family meals where we would be earnestly worrying about peanut allergies, and in the end, settling for the ice cream.
Kim: Exactly right. And that was a problem when we first started to work with kitchens. Commercial kitchen chefs thought that the easiest way out of this is just to say that everything contains every single allergy because then they won’t get caught.
And of course, there were a whole load of chefs working in that way which was awful, because, you’d look at the menu and you’d see ice cream has fish in it? Has it? Really?
James: Yeah, not something the vegetarians would’ve appreciated much, either.
Fantastic. And that leads me perfectly to my third question, which was a prediction for the future. Is there something you feel will change the market or the broader business landscape and how we can best prepare for it?
Kim: Well, I think everything has changed so dramatically because of covid, obviously. In so very many ways. One of the things that has come out of this is that technology has the ability to help in so many areas.
In our particular area of technology, which is speech and voice recognition, they predict that it’s going to exponentially grow because it’s contactless. And people have got used to contactless now. And I think that our big focus now is to put that to some good.
When you consider – we’ve obviously chosen the area of literacy – that two billion people on this planet cannot read and write. Seven hundred and seventy million of those people can’t read a single word. And two hundred and sixty-two million children don’t have access to a school. How do we get to those people? How do you approach those people?
And that’s where I think voice and tech are going to have a really massive role to play. I think that what we’ve got to do is take everything that we’ve learned over the last 18 months – all of those challenges and the way the world has been made a smaller place; things are now more in reach because of Zoom and everything else, people are more used to it – and we’ve got to find a problem to focus on because you can’t fix everything, you really can’t. For me, you focus on one really important thing, which for me is how we use the technology that we’ve got for the greater good? And how do we get that to people? And how can we make a difference?
You know, literacy is not even just about children. There are 16.9% of the English adult population that are functionally illiterate. And that has a massive impact on their lives. There’s another fact that I thought was outstanding: nearly 50% of people in prison are functionally illiterate. So, I think that we’ve all got to pay more attention to this subject. It’s the foundation of everything. People cannot make informed choices if they can’t read.
James: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Certainly, that’s the vision that the Turing Trust was founded on; what we can do with technology that we currently aren’t but probably should for the betterment of the world.
Kim: Definitely. And I think there are so many people that have not got access to real-life humans to be able to help them to do things, I think you are absolutely right. What the Turing Trust is doing is phenomenal, and a tremendous legacy to your great uncle.
It’s a great leveller as well. I know there’s lots of talk at the moment, politically, around levelling up. And how can you level up without technology? You can’t. Or it’s the fastest way of being able to level up, I think.
James: Exactly, I would certainly agree. Certainly makes doing your homework a bit quicker, that’s for sure.
So, one of the key messages from my perspective that goes underneath and builds the foundations for all of these good works is how companies can address the social impacts of what their business is doing.
I believe that’s something you’re doing with both of your companies; particularly through Auris. You’re looking at that business model and how other people can also fund schools that might not be as privileged. Is that right?
Kim: 100%. That’s been a big focus for us, and actually, I was very touched and surprised about how many corporations are prepared to actually help. We run a corporate sponsorship programme where we’ve got businesses that are paying to fund the application into schools, and we’re part of that because we always maintain that for every three sponsors, we will actually sponsor a fourth school.
Obviously, we’re a business. We can’t do everything ourselves. If we had the funds and the means to, we’d let everyone have it for free, because it’s the right thing to do. But I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the types of businesses that want to get involved. I think so many businesses now do so much already for their local communities, and the fact that they can fund a local school or group of schools has been something that has been extremely well received from our perspective and there are some great benefactors out there.
Apart from that, we’ve worked with quite a few celebrities that have been prepared to promote the idea. For example, we ran a 12 days of Christmas campaign, over the 12 days of Christmas, of course, where we asked a dozen celebrities to read a book from our platform and share it with their networks through their own social media. In turn, they were able to nominate an entire school that we could give the platform to in their name, and you would be absolutely surprised at the number of amazing people that were just so willing to do so. We’re honoured to have a brand ambassador in Clare Balding, who is just the most incredible support for us. With her and through our network, we’ve been able to rally up some other support. We’ve had people like Anneka Rice, Robert Rinder, Dion Dublin, Martin Roberts, Kay Adams, Sarah Willingham and amongst others. All were absolutely prepared to do whatever was necessary to help spread the word.
James: Absolutely. I think it’s very much the mantra of doing well by doing good. And that, fortunately, is something that seems to be becoming more and more common these days.
Kim: Thank goodness. I think the other thing that’s really important and really powerful – especially when we’ve been at home for most of the last 18 months – is the power of your network. I think when you’re doing something good, it’s really easy to share that. It’s quite surprising how many people respond. So, it’s about spreading the word.
James: Exactly, that’s the key. Hopefully something this podcast will do its own little bit in doing.
Kim: I sincerely hope so. You’re doing a tremendous job, and what you’re doing with the trust is just overwhelmingly brilliant.
James: Thank you, Kim. You’re far too kind.
Brilliant. I think that’s everything I wanted to chat about today.
Kim: Thank you so much for your time.
James: Thanks again.