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Salesforce Ventures has launched a US$250-million fund to back generative artificial intelligence startups, the company announced Tuesday, and has made an investment in Toronto-based Cohere Inc., which develops language-processing technology.

Generative AI, which refers to software that creates text or images based on short prompts, has exploded in popularity over the past few months – particularly after the release of conversational AI bot ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI.

Cohere, founded in 2019, is a competitor to OpenAI and develops large language models, or LLMs, which have been trained to process and generate text through ingesting massive quantities of data from the internet. Cohere has said it aims to make its language models more accessible so that entrepreneurs and companies of any size can develop applications with the technology.

Salesforce Ventures, the investment arm of software company Salesforce Inc., CRM-N also announced it was backing three other AI companies: customer relationship management firm Hearth AI; internet search startup; and Anthropic, which has developed a conversational AI assistant.

The amount of each investment was not disclosed.

“There’s been a huge amount of momentum going on. There’s a lot of investor interest and really a lot of enterprise interest in what we’re doing,” said Martin Kon, president and chief operating officer at Cohere. “We’re eager to accelerate our progress, and funding is a part of that.”

Mr. Kon added that the relationship with Salesforce opens the door to bringing on more customers, though he was unable to go into specifics: “We have a very similar view of the world, and we think every enterprise should have LLM capabilities.”

Salesforce recently released a survey showing 67 per cent of senior IT leaders are prioritizing AI for their businesses in the next 18 months, and that more than half believe the technology is a “game changer.”

A host of startups are deploying LLMs to build customer service chatbots, write marketing copy and other prose, and analyze and summarize large volumes of text. Large enterprises are also incorporating generative AI into existing products, such as Microsoft’s AI-powered version of the Bing search engine. Salesforce is integrating generative AI as well, releasing a ChatGPT app for workplace communication platform Slack that can summarize conversations and offer writing assistance.

Despite the flurry of activity, how useful – and profitable – generative AI will be remains to be seen. Many experts have flagged problems with the technology, particularly the capacity for language models to make factual errors and simply make things up. (About 33 per cent of respondents to the Salesforce survey contend generative AI is overhyped.)

Cohere, meanwhile, is seen as one of the most promising AI startups in Canada. Co-founder and chief executive officer Aidan Gomez is one of several co-authors on a 2017 research paper that outlined a new method for computers to process language, leading to the more sophisticated capabilities we see today. Geoffrey Hinton, a luminary in the AI field, and Toronto-based Radical Ventures are both early investors in Cohere. The company raised US$40-million in 2021, and took on another US$125-million in funding just five months later.

While Cohere has not released a viral product to the public such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, the company prefers to work more closely with businesses. Cohere is collaborating with an audio streaming company to develop an internal search engine to analyze podcast transcripts and surface more relevant results, and with consumer-goods companies to generate marketing copy in the style of each brand’s individual voice.

Reuters reported in February that Cohere was in talks to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in a round that could value the company at more than US$6-billion. Mr. Kon declined to comment on the report.

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