Paul Allen Hires Oren Etzioni for New Artificial Intelligence Push

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face the same kinds of resource constraints he has in startup companies and university settings—the latter being subject to the whims of short-sighted lawmakers and, often, Department of Defense funding that “has its own twist.” But he will be competing for talent with the likes of Facebook and Google, because the technology underlying the next generation of AI systems—machine learning, data mining, big data processing—is used by consumer Internet companies, and others, to target advertising.

The AI Institute offers an “unencumbered focus on these questions,” Etzioni says, noting that research in other settings—while still extremely important—can be driven by commercial considerations or the academic imperative to publish or perish.

Etzioni

Etzioni

“This is where Paul Allen doesn’t just provide the resources, but he also provides a huge impetus and leadership in terms of his intellectual curiosity. I really feel that he is as passionate about these questions as I am,” Etzioni says. “There’s definitely an opportunity here to be ambitious and to aim high.”

If there is a downside to this news from the perspective of the Seattle innovation economy, it’s that Etzioni—a prototypical example of the scholar-entrepreneur with a track record of translating university research into successful businesses—will have no time to churn out more startups. Approaching age 50, Etzioni says he’s written papers and started companies, and is now ready for the next challenge.

“To have this kind of opportunity, you have to give up—and I am giving up—a bunch of the special freedoms that university professors enjoy,” Etzioni says. “To make this a success, I’m going to need to devote 150 percent of my time.”

But, he adds, the institute will be another magnet to bring top computer science talent to Seattle. “It’s almost inevitable that ideas will come out, technologies will emerge, people themselves will leave and start companies, and I think that’s a great thing,” Etzioni says. “I’m just not going to be part of that because I’m going to be focused on this really tough challenge.”

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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