An AI-powered government: Michael Gleaves explains how technology can change lives

“People don't just buy products, they buy answers to the problems they want to solve.”

By | 5 minute read | May 15, 2019

Gleaves worked with the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England on a chatbot for children and their families. © Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England

“Yes, I was a ‘beer scientist,’” Michael Gleaves told Industrious. Specifically, a silica research chemist who worked on modifying how silica could absorb more protein from beer after fermentation. It was the perfect job for a recent college graduate.

“It all went extremely well, as is often the case with your first project,” said Gleaves, today deputy director at the UK-based Hartree Centre. “We produced this material that went into trials within the company.”

He worked within a small team at Unilever. The project would allow breweries to significantly improve the shelf life of beer and reduce waste. It would save money by using 50-70% less material than previous methods.

There was only one small problem—sales couldn’t convince head brewers in breweries to use the innovative material.

“This was my first taste of the reality that having a better product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be used,” Gleaves said.

He and colleagues eventually met with the sales team to explain how and why the material worked at such a lower dose and still gave the same level of performance. He also shifted sales’ perspective by having them treat the new material as a trial so customers could see for themselves how it worked at their plants.

This plan worked extremely well, providing him another insight.

“I’ve learned there are two big parts to successful innovation: the invention stage, which creates something new or better, and then the adoption phase, which is presenting the technology in a way that provides a clear value so that it’s adopted throughout the marketplace, leading to better business,” said Gleaves.

The analogies from past technology adoptions are plentiful. Think of the Betamax vs. VHS “videotape format war” in the late 1970s and 1980s, said Gleaves. Betamax was, in theory, a superior recording format over VHS due to higher resolution, better sound and more stable images. But in the end VHS won because it was cheaper and provided more entertainment options.

“Betamax video recorders were the best on the market so my father got one, but we could only watch the same Christmas movie year after year,” he said. “VHS had a choice of thousands of films and that’s why it worked.”

Gleaves crystallized those lessons as he gained experience in sales roles at other chemicals companies and picked up new insights along the way (“people don’t just buy products, they buy answers to the problems they want to solve”).

He landed at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), a UK-based science organization with a mission to deliver economic, societal, and scientific benefits to the UK and the world. While there, he developed strategic industry partnerships for computational modelling research, and also earned an MBA from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Five years ago, Gleaves joined the newly established STFC Hartree Centre as Head of Business Development with responsibility for a team that encouraged collaboration between UK industrial and research partners.

Backed by £170 million in government funding and strategic partnerships​ with organizations such as IBM, the Hartree Centre’s goal is to transform UK industry through big data, high performance computing, and AI technologies

Through that partnership with IBM, the Hartree Centre has been able to accelerate the application of technology to industries like agriculture. Hartree mapped satellite and geospatial data to help identify and prevent the spread of blackgrass, a disease that kills UK crops. It’s also predicted moth migration and looked at weather to alert farmers about the best time to use herbicide or pesticide.

“The IBM collaboration has really accelerated our projects,” said Gleaves. “Without them, we would have spent most of our time mashing and mangling data to make it work and spent less time researching and applying those tools to see whether that solution is useful.”

Another example of the IBM partnership is the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England. Alder Hey has a beloved elephant character called Oli. To make things easier for families and children visiting the hospital, they designed a Watson-powered chatbot called Oli.

The tool allows people to ask questions, such as where to get coffee, find parking, or locating a particular doctor’s office. As more people ask questions, the AI continually learns and improves to give better answers.

Where it gets interesting, Gleaves said, is when the kids at the hospital ask Oli questions they may not ask the “scary old doctors” because they feel intimidated or not empowered.

“One of the kids, when told about anesthesia, asked ‘why do you need to put me to sleep now?  Why not wait until I go to sleep this evening and just do the surgery then?’” said Gleaves. “And the anesthetist said, ‘In 25 years, nobody’s asked me that question.’ But I can’t believe it’s the first time that anybody thought that. This is just allowing kids to relay their fears by asking questions.”

And now, because its AI learns, Watson has an answer to that question.

When asked how governments and industries should be working together to speed the adoption of technologies, Gleaves cites the book, “Entrepreneurial State.”

“The book talks about a product that everybody knows: the iPhone,” he said. “Almost all the underlying technologies that go into an iPhone have transitioned through governments or large national labs. Siri, for example, was a spin-off from a project originally developed by the Stanford Research Institute or SRI.”

The initial part of the invention stage is almost always by a government institution, explains Gleaves, such as the internet that began as Arpanet, an effort of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the late 1960s.

What companies should become excellent at is “horizon scanning,” or viewing the technologies currently being built within a government system of innovation and then picking, engineering, and integrating those technologies into their business.

“Governments can work with industry to accelerate the adoption of technology, which improves a company’s use of technology, but also creates the competitiveness of their entire nation by using more advanced technology and developing the companies and skilled employees to deliver that for your nation,” Gleaves said.

While being a beer scientist was wonderful, Gleaves said that working as the interface between government and industry is right where he wants to be.

“I’m extremely lucky to work on technology-inspired solutions and help people adopt technologies that ensure their companies are competitive in the future,” he said. “It’s really almost the best job in the world. And when you get it right, there is so much we can achieve.”