Cassandra: “Oh no, not again!”

When I read yet another article like this, I get a wave of deja vu accompanied by a sense of nausea; not the existential, alienating dread described in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous novel, this is more akin to the seasick feeling of a huge mess that could have been avoided, if only someone had believed us.

“UK SMEs not ready for ‘avalanche’ of Brexit 2.0 rules and taxes”

About a year ago, give or take, Etic Lab designed a system that would prepare British businesses to seamlessly continue trading in Europe in the light of incoming EU trading regulations, in particular the green tax known as the “carbon border adjustment mechanism.” Our technology comprises a set of sustainable supply chain discovery tools. It can already find and rank suppliers based on their sustainability measures and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) maturity by place and industry, right down to the granularity of the services and products they offer. We partnered with colleagues Istari.ai in Germany to train this on an enormous quantity of high quality data on ten million businesses across the UK and Europe. Our proposal to scale and develop this into an integrated AI discovery system for use by businesses and procurement officers was met by blank looks from private and public funders, clients and investors alike. We thought, perhaps we’ve read this wrong? Or else there must be a comprehensive plan we are unaware of, for avoiding an otherwise impending economic crisis of Homeric proportions for UK business cut off from selling in Europe.

“From October, EU companies must compile reports on the carbon emissions attached to some imported goods, including steel, aluminium and fertilisers, with businesses having to buy certificates to cover pollution embedded in products from 2026.”

The imminent tragedy the British Chamber of Commerce via the FT is alerting readers about was entirely avoidable.

As figs 1-4 show, the multiple different misreadings of our own solution and lack of comprehension of the problem (even that there is a problem) by one public funder appear almost wilful. If assessors lack the sector or technical knowledge or experience required, we would have hoped that reviewers would have been able to make use of the wider resources of the public funding organisation – or even reached out for clarification from ourselves and our partners. Although hard to glean from the assessments here, we were proposing to build a recommender system – not an algorithm or simple amalgamation of recommender algorithms. This would require an investigation of the sophisticated interplay between the development of novel metrics and design choices in the evolution of the system. The technical risk is high – metrics such as we propose have never been used to design a recommender system, indeed in some cases do not themselves exist yet. The fact that we could propose them is a testament to Istari and Etic Lab’s capacity for collaborative innovation. For clarity’s sake here: recommendation based on ESG criteria is a relatively trivial aspect of our proposal. We propose to develop a system that learns from and reflects the developing priorities of multiple user agents in new real time, as well as an enormous volume of high quality, verified data about millions of UK and European businesses. Recommender systems of the size and complexity proposed are inherently opaque in their operation; this is a high technical barrier to overcome and in no way represents business as normal for either company involved.


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Etic Lab has a track record of inventing things that will in the near future be urgently required but that no one recognises as such until it’s too late. We have suffered from the lack of guts and imagination (aka the capacity to recognise real innovation) in the UK funding and investment ecosystem many times. Notably, our previous  our invention and development of Kuva, a completely private and secure, award-winning, actually end-to-end encrypted communications platform that did not collect or store user data, which we retired earlier this year due to a generally apathetic response from investors, funders and the intended clientele in the legal and therapeutic sectors. The last laugh, I suppose, is on those underserved sectors as Zoom recently announced they reserve the right to train AI models on all user content it has collected and stored. If only users had read the wilfully vague privacy policies and understood their implications. If only we had not been regarded as privacy paranoia cranks. But we are not (entirely) alone; innovative businesses in the UK are as misrecognised as Cassandra.

Our technologies and the data we hold on UK businesses tell us that highly innovative businesses are rare, and that where they do appear they are often under-capitalised. The conservative nature of UK investors is well known. It is disappointing that public innovation funding often fails them too. From our own experience of applying, it is clear that assessors often do not understand the problem space, are unaware of the context in which we are operating or even, sometimes, do not have the capacity to comprehend the proposed technical solution. While some of the failure to communicate is on us, a lack of appropriate expertise is evidenced in reviewers’ comments. One memorable assessor of a bid for a fund explicitly soliciting artificial intelligence solutions, for example, demonstrated not only an absolute failure to engage with the premise of the proposal but also a complete obliviousness of how AI is developed.

Fig.5: This assessor appears incapable of understanding the proposed project (this proposal is not about classifying music styles)

Fig. 6: This assessor appears incapable of understanding the proposed project (this is not a proposal aimed at music audiences or, indeed, for an app)

Fig.7: This assessor appears incapable of understanding the proposed project (they do not understand how AI is developed) 

Get in Touch

We would be interested to hear other innovative businesses’ horror stories of rejection by UK funders’ incompetent assessors; do get in touch and we will publish them here (no need to tell us who you are – we already know).

We would be interested to hear other innovative businesses’ horror stories of rejection by UK funders’ incompetent assessors; do get in touch and we will publish them here (no need to tell us who you are – we already know).

But what about the Immediate Crisis?

To return to the wholly preventable crisis at hand; the main point of this is to say that businesses have been let down. Very badly. They have been failed by the government, by the government’s funding programmes, by the British Chamber of Commerce – all of whom, it appears, only noticed the other day a problem that we were able to see coming over a year ago. Troy has been sacked and burned, but what can we rescue from the charred remains?

Help for Businesses

For any businesses that urgently need to untangle the sustainability of their supply chains now, we can offer immediate help.

Invest in developing our AI system for Surfacing Sustainable Supply Chains

If you are interested in investing in the development of an already designed, comprehensive AI system to service the UK- and Europe-wide sustainable supply chain and procurement problem, we are open to offers. 

To discuss the ideas presented in this article please click here.