Paul Allen Hires Oren Etzioni for New Artificial Intelligence Push

Paul Allen has tapped one of Seattle’s foremost professor-entrepreneurs to lead an ambitious new institute tasked with expanding the frontiers of artificial intelligence research.

Dr. Oren Etzioni, a professor in the University of Washington Computer Science Department for more than two decades with a half dozen successful startup companies to his credit, began this week as executive director of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, based in Seattle.

Etzioni says the new endeavor is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for him personally and represents a potential boon to Seattle’s research-driven innovation economy, though it also means he is done being a company founder.

Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and polymath investor and philanthropist, has backed research into artificial intelligence (AI) since at least 2001, when he brought together researchers to create a “Digital Aristotle,” conceived as “a computer embodiment of an insightful teacher.” That effort continues today under the auspices of Project Halo, which is currently working on programs that can acquire knowledge from science texts, crowdsourcing, and some manual input, and then successfully pass high-school-level biology tests.

Allen.

Allen

The AI institute is modeled on the nonprofit Allen Institute for Brain Science, which Allen established in 2003 and has backed to the tune of $500 million. That effort’s mission is “to accelerate the understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease” and is itself in the tradition of “big science” projects such as the Hubble Telescope and Large Hadron Collider.

At the new institute, Etzioni will focus on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research, which has proven to be a moving target.

“Over the years, more and more technical problems have succumbed to AI techniques,” he says. “An example is speech recognition or computer chess. In fact, there’s an old adage that if it works, it ain’t AI, which means that once we figure out how to solve a problem that used to be core AI, people turn around and say ‘Well, that’s not really AI.'”

While efforts such as the 2011 Jeopardy-champion Watson computer from IBM are impressive, Etzioni says people in the field—including Allen and himself—feel that significant areas of research remain to be addressed. One example is what is sometimes called general intelligence, as opposed to savant-like machines that are good in a narrow arena, he says.

It’s “the ability for a program to really know something,” Etzioni says. As he points out, people quip that Watson won Jeopardy—but it didn’t know it won.

“To some extent that kind of refers to consciousness, which is another dimension to this, but the point is, to what extent does the program have basic knowledge and reasoning capability, and how intelligent can it be if it doesn’t?” he says.

Etzioni says there are potentially life-saving practical applications of AI in fields such as medicine, where a “tireless medical assistant who keeps up with all the literature on your behalf” could help physicians avoid errors or extend better care to underserved parts of the world. (He does not suggest, however, that a computer could replace a doctor’s bedside manner or emotional intelligence.)

Such an assistant would need the ability to acquire “high-quality, encyclopedic knowledge that you can draw upon to make diagnoses, identify side effects of drugs, et cetera,” he says, and to do it as fields like medicine are faced with ever-expanding amounts of new data and research.

“It’s not enough that we can codify some small number of things. There’s just so much knowledge being produced that you need to figure out how to put that into the computer in a scalable way, and that’s one of our big challenges with AI, too,” Etzioni says.

Etzioni hopes the institute will benefit from the existing AI expertise already present in the region at Project Halo, as well as Microsoft Research and the University of Washington, among others. “I’m both going to be gently competitive with these places—because I want to hire the best and the brightest and so do they—but at the same time highly collaborative because we can’t do everything, and we’re part of this really exciting ecosystem,” he says.

With the support of an engaged benefactor who happens to be among the richest people in the world, Etzioni says he will not 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.”

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

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