Tech Companies Pour Resources into Artificial Intelligence

Article excerpt

The latest Silicon Valley arms race is a contest to build the best artificial brains. Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and other leading tech companies are jockeying to hire top scientists in the field of artificial intelligence, while spending heavily on a quest to make computers think more like people.

They're not building humanoid robots - not yet, anyway. But a number of tech giants and startups are trying to build computer systems that understand what you want, perhaps before you knew you wanted it.

"It's important to position yourself in this market for the next decade," said Yann LeCun, a leading New York University researcher hired to run Facebook's new A.I. division in December. "A lot is riding on artificial intelligence and content analysis, and on being smarter about how people and computers interact."

Artificial intelligence programs can already recognize images and translate human speech. Tech researchers want to build systems that can match the human brain's ability to handle more complex challenges - to intuitively predict traffic conditions while steering automated cars or drones, for example, or to grasp the intent of written texts and spoken messages, so they can better anticipate what kind of information, including ads, their users want to see.

Facebook has recruited several well-regarded A.I. scientists, including one from Google, in recent months. Google has been working on artificial intelligence for several years, enlisting prominent researchers such as Stanford's Andrew Ng and the University of Toronto's Geoffrey Hinton to help build computer systems known as "neural networks," which are capable of teaching themselves.

But in a sign it wants to do more, Google paid a reported $400 million in January to buy DeepMind, a British startup said to be working on artificial intelligence for image recognition, e- commerce recommendations and video games. DeepMind had also drawn interest from Facebook. In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invested personally in Vicarious, a Silicon Valley startup working on software that can recognize - and draw - images of animals or other things.

"In the last 18 months, every venture capital firm I know has made at least one investment" in artificial intelligence, robotics or related sectors, said Raj Singh, CEO of Tempo AI, which makes a "smart calendar" mobile app that acts like a personal assistant. Tempo uses technology from SRI, the Menlo Park, Calif., think tank that developed key elements of Apple's Siri and has spun off several artificial intelligence startups.

Competition among digital personal assistants is especially heated: While each works differently, Tempo is vying with Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's new Cortana. Through a series of upgrades, each has tried to outdo the others in providing reminders and anticipating questions by analyzing relevant data from users' calendars, contact lists and email.

The ultimate goal is something closer to "Samantha," the personable operating system voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson in the film "Her," though it undoubtedly will be more businesslike.

Right now, even Siri fans have voiced frustration with its limitations, including balky silences and nonresponsive answers. But there are signs Apple is working feverishly to improve it.

"Apple is hiring some of the most intelligent guys in this field," said Abdel-Rahman Mohamed, a University of Toronto researcher who has used a form of artificial intelligence known as "deep learning" to improve speech recognition by computers. Based on Apple's recent hiring, Mr. Mohamed predicted Siri will improve dramatically.

Facebook, meanwhile, wants to better understand its users' posts and preferences so it can show them more relevant messages, Mr. …

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