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