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UW professor leads venture for artificial intelligence research

The nature of intelligence remains one of the top unsolved scientific mysteries. Yet UW computer science professor Oren Etzioni, at the request of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is leading a new enterprise to make discoveries about artificial intelligence (AI).

Allen and Etzioni are establishing a Seattle-based startup company called the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2). The institute aims to explore opportunities for development in the field of AI. 

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to launch an AI research institute in Seattle,” Etzioni said in a statement. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I can combine both work and academic research.” 

“With Oren’s leadership, we will apply that same model to explore the critical questions in AI today … including opportunities to help computers acquire knowledge and reason,” Allen said in a statement. 

The idea behind AI is universal: create an intelligent machine or software that thinks, acts, and processes information much like a human. However, that task is easier said than done. 

Etzioni said the future of AI is still unclear but that it will eventually go beyond the current models of statistics-based speech recognition and finding search results. He claims there has been progress with robots such as Apple’s Siri application and Watson, an artificially intelligent computer system specifically designed to answer questions on the television quiz show “Jeopardy.” However, there are still more technologies to be developed.

“Speech recognition interprets the speech signal, but it doesn’t actually understand what is being said — or the way someone else put it, Watson doesn’t know that it won Jeopardy,” Etzioni said in an interview with GeekWire, a Seattle-based, technology-focused publication. “While we have some great achievements, at the same time, they are limited in scope. We are wanting to take AI really to the next level and address these fundamental questions.”

Etzioni said that in the next stage of AI study, researchers plan to go beyond basic signal processing, a process dealing with analysis of both analog and digitized signals in systems engineering, electrical engineering, and applied mathematics. They will then seek to build programs able to acquire fundamental knowledge through knowledge acquisition, a process of extracting, structuring, and organizing knowledge from human experts so it can be used in computer software or an interface.

For Allen and his AI enterprises, the original vision leading to more substantial AI research was a “Digital Aristotle,” an interactive system designed to hold vast amounts of human knowledge that could be easily accessed by users. In the early 2000s, Project Halo, founded by Allen, evaluated the possibilities of creating sophisticated reasoning systems for AI technologies. Although the study, which focused on encoding textbook pages into a computer program, had good results, the knowledge acquisition process was expensive.

The Project Halo research program mostly dealt with efficient knowledge-acquisition technologies that gave domain experts the opportunity to enter knowledge directly into the system. Project Halo is currently under development and will be one of Etzioni’s many focuses at AI2. 

Ed Lazowska, longtime computer science professor who has worked with Etzioni, sees the new venture as exciting news for the Seattle community. 

“AI2 has the potential to transform Seattle into a world center of AI research in the same way that [the Allen Institute for Brain Science] has transformed Seattle into a world center of brain research,” Lazowska said in an interview. “This is a gigantic win. It’s exactly the sort of thing we try to encourage — part of making Seattle a center of the tech universe.”

Etzioni feels the same way. After 30 years of academia, he is now focusing his time on this new investment. 

At this point, it’s really about getting things off the ground,” Etzioni said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Reach reporter Karina Mazhukhina at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @karina9m

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