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Nigel Cannings of Intelligent Voice: “Stick to what you know”

A few years ago, long before anyone thought about lockdowns, I had an idea for an Augmented Reality (“AR”) meeting room which could be driven entirely by voice, so that people did not need to be tethered to a camera for meetings, but could still be “present”, with an avatar that actually reacted based on […]

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A few years ago, long before anyone thought about lockdowns, I had an idea for an Augmented Reality (“AR”) meeting room which could be driven entirely by voice, so that people did not need to be tethered to a camera for meetings, but could still be “present”, with an avatar that actually reacted based on what people were saying. Using AR means that you could actually place the other people in the room in a chair opposite you in a natural environment. It seemed a bit science fiction at the time, but now that we are all stuck at home, this type of interaction, without the need to be tied to a camera, could be crucial.


The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nigel Cannings, CTO at Intelligent Voice. He has over 25 years’ experience in both Law and Technology, is the founder of Intelligent Voice Ltd and a pioneer in all things voice. Nigel is also a regular speaker at industry events not limited to NVIDIA, IBM, HPE and AI Financial Summits.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you got started?

My guilty secret is that I started life as a lawyer in the early 90s. My dad sold the first ever personal computers in Europe through his Byte Shop chain in 1978, and I had always wanted to follow in his footsteps, so I walked into his office at the age of 18 in 1987, and told him that I wanted to become a businessman (80’s speak for an entrepreneur). He swore at me for the first time in his life and told me that I had no idea how hard it was, and to go get a proper job: If I wanted to run my own business, come back to him after that. Fast forward 17 years. I had gone to university, become a lawyer, and ended up running the legal team in Europe for what was then one of the world’s largest software companies. I’d made good money out of share options, so I left my job and walked back into his office and said “Right, I’m ready.” His response was one of bafflement and confusion. He had no recollection at all of that seminal moment in my life — He had just wanted me out of his office!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve done a huge amount of travelling in the last 20 years, much of it to the US, and so a lot of the best stories come from those trips: Certainly my karaoke skills have improved immensely over the years. Probably my best and worst was meeting Tim Witherspoon, Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner, on a plane when he was on the way to Ali’s funeral. We talked, I got a great photo with him, and I was totally psyched to meet him. The only problem was, at the time, I didn’t have a clue who he was! All I knew was that the attendants on the plane were making real fuss of him, so I had to go over and say hello (it was a very empty flight!)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Richard Branson said “There are no quick wins in business — it takes years to become an overnight success.” — I know of few people who start their own businesses who don’t find this out the hard way: I certainly did. When you are employed and getting a salary every month, you have no idea what goes on behind the scenes to make sure that it happens, particularly in a small or medium-sized company. Going out on your own will cost you money, can cost you friendships, and can even cost you family. It can crush your mental health, and none of this is helped by the “unicorn” culture where we see one or two companies achieve billion dollar status as if your inability to do that is failure. Or as Professor Scott Galloway put it “The worst advice given to young people is … follow your passion. What utter bullshit. If someone tells you to follow your passion, that means they’re already rich. …”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve already spoken about my dad once, and I’m going to have to do it again. He spent 50 years in business making a lot of the mistakes it’s possible to make, and so I have leaned heavily on him for advice in running my own business. Doesn’t mean I have always listened, but it’s helped me work out when my gut is right, rather than just inexperienced.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Life is about cause and effect: I’m not one for big gestures, instead I try to look at every decision I make and think “How would I feel to be on the receiving end of that?”. I try to be fair in my dealings with other people. It doesn’t always mean people agree that I am being fair, but I try hard to weigh up all sides before I act. I also try very hard to give a leg up to people who otherwise might not get a chance. As a company, we work very closely with the University of East London, and look to help sponsor and encourage students from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. The government runs an excellent Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme to help bridge the gap between academia and industry, and to encourage young academics to skill up for the real world. Of the 800 currently operating now across the entire UK, we have two.

Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

A few years ago, long before anyone thought about lockdowns, I had an idea for an Augmented Reality (“AR”) meeting room which could be driven entirely by voice, so that people did not need to be tethered to a camera for meetings, but could still be “present”, with an avatar that actually reacted based on what people were saying. Using AR means that you could actually place the other people in the room in a chair opposite you in a natural environment. It seemed a bit science fiction at the time, but now that we are all stuck at home, this type of interaction, without the need to be tied to a camera, could be crucial.

How do you think this might change the world?

We’re never going back to work in the way we did previously. And as the term “Zoom Fatigue” quickly entered popular culture not long after lockdown, clearly the way we are doing online meetings is just not working. I think this technology could give us all of the benefits of being present in a meeting, without a lot of the drawbacks of sitting in front of a camera, while still allowing us to interact in what for us is a familiar space.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

At the extreme, maybe we should be worried about people being replaced by their virtual equivalents and no-one noticing! With generative language models getting better and better, and “deepfake” audio cloning now a reality, who knows who is hiding behind the avatar? Seriously, though, we need to make sure that this doesn’t lead to excessive surveillance of the workforce: We can use AI as a means of making meetings more productive (eg meeting notes or real-time knowledge mining), but it is really too easy to start to measure how much people say, or how they say it, and draw incorrect conclusions about their value and contributions. I’m not a fan of how slavishly we are allowing “Sales Enablement” tools to make decisions about our workforces, and think we need to look hard at how we apply the technology

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

I was getting a bit sick of spending my life on an airplane. I am very much an “in-person” person, so I like to meet people face-to-face and get to know them. The relationship you develop over the phone or on a video conference is not as deep as when you sit face-to-face with someone, and the best deals I have done over the years are with people I have got to know by meeting them. I wasn’t looking to replace the face-to-face, just find a middle ground where I could interact a lot more naturally with people, without the need to travel 6,000 miles every time I wanted to do so.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

Money, obviously. We have got so used to not paying for anything that gaining widespread adoption of any new technology means that you have to give an awful lot of it away to get people to pay for it. You only have to look at the massive imbalance of free and paid users on Zoom to see that. Also, the hardware needs to come on a little more, so that AR glasses are more within the reach of ordinary people. AR works well on a phone, but the headset devices that you need to wear to do immersive AR are really too cumbersome for everyday use.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

I’ve already touched on this to a degree. We’re going to be working from home a lot, and it will be a long time until we travel for business the way we did. In fact, the airlines are going to have to have a massive rethink about a model that relies on filling a plane with a few super expensive tickets to fund the rest of the trip (as someone who has spent his career trying to find reasonably priced long-distance travel, I will welcome that!). So the idea of giving people a more natural 3D interaction with other people in a way that doesn’t smack of playing Doom in the 90s will, I think, replace the whole way we use Teams and Zoom today.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It is going to take a lot longer than you thought: I often joke that I am in year 13 of my 3 year plan. Somewhere I have a copy of the original business plan, and I seem to remember that it promised the first desert island by 2012. Building a successful business can take a long time, but if it’s the right business, it is worth following it through.
  2. It is going to cost you a lot more than you thought: The “you” is the important thing. Businesses don’t run on thin air, they need cash. Unusually we built the Intelligent Voice business without bringing in external investors, so we have sunk a lot of our own cash into the business, especially when times have been lean. But this has meant we have kept control of the company while if we had taken in outside investment, we might have failed, or have been diluted down to nothing. So before you start, think about what you are willing to invest, and also what allowing other people to invest in your place means to your control of your own destiny.
  3. Your vision is a lot more obvious to you than it is to others: This in a sense is the distillation of the first two points. It was totally obvious to me in 2008/9 when I first looked at the market that banks, post-crash, needed much more automation in their surveillance, and that the voice channel was the one that was the hardest to monitor using electronic means (and therefore the most open to abuse). It took until 2013 to persuade someone to actually install a holistic monitoring system using speech recognition technology (a world first), and then almost another 5 years to land a truly global opportunity, almost 10 years after I had first had the idea. I have a whole series of slides starting back to 2015 saying “2015 is the Year of Voice”, then “2016 is the Year of Voice” and so on. It was only in about 2020 that people actually really started to get it, certainly in the enterprise market.
  4. Make it pretty: I do not have an artistic bone in my body. But I like to build things. So I have always been a function over form sort of person. Back when we had desks at work, mine was covered in an array of hastily soldered together Heath Robinson inventions, and as anyone who works with me will tell you, I code in exactly the same way, 10% inspiration, 90% bulldozer. It was only when we released Myna last year, and employed proper graphic design on the front end that I realised something powerful (and probably obvious). It doesn’t matter how good your product is, people’s first reaction is always visual first, and features second. Of course it needs the features too, but whatever you build, don’t forget to build in beauty
  5. Stick to what you know: The grass is always greener. You are stuck in a job, and you have to get out. You hate your boss and feel you just can’t work for anyone else. Often the right time to start your own business. Honestly, this is not the time to decide to build a better cat flap. Yes, of course, we see the billionaires who dropped out of college and started a business seemingly on a whim, or someone who rented airbeds who parlayed that into a $31B company. But they are the exception. I always said I would never sell to lawyers, having been one for almost 5 years, but in the end it was my legal background that made the company successful in trader surveillance and litigation support. It pains me to say it, but apart from the lucky ones, for most of us, it’s always better to stick to what you know.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Much as I would like to reintroduce hat wearing for men, that has little social benefit apart from to Milliners. From personal experience, I would want us to be able to properly explore the mental health issues that people face in their lives, some from organic causes (such as being bipolar) and others from terrible situations or loss. I know that with a destigmatisation of mental illness, and proper funding to deal with it, we would save thousands of lives every year and improve the lives of millions of others. And I’m particularly aiming this at men, who are so much more likely to suffer in silence. We need celebrities, influencers, business people, teachers, anyone whose life *looks* great from the outside to come forward and talk about their struggles, and how they cope with it (or don’t). Not at a “look at me, look how great I am” way, but being honest, and offering what helps get them through the day. If someone can come up with a catchy name for the movement, I’ll be first in line to spill the beans.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I don’t Tweet, but I am active on LinkedIn, where you can usually see my latest news, blogs and publications at www.linkedin.com/in/nigelcannings — For the more academically minded, my Google Scholar page is here: https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=zHL1sngAAAAJ&hl=en

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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