Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft form AI non-profit

The technology heavyweights have announced they are forming a not-for-profit organisation to educate the public, open up dialogue about AI technologies, and identify opportunities to use it to solve problems in the world.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft have announced they are forming a non-for-profit organisation to educate the public about artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, as well as alleviate anxieties around its application.

The collective, which includes Google's AI subsidiary DeepMind, also plans to develop best practices on the challenges and opportunities within the field of AI.

The organisation, called Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society (Partnership on AI), will address legal and ethical challenges that AI presents, encourage public discourse, and identify opportunities to use AI to bring improvements to society. The organisation does not intend to be a regulatory body, with a statement saying it does "not intend to lobby government or other policymaking bodies."

Members of the Partnership on AI will conduct research, recommend best practices, and publish research under an open license in areas such as ethics, fairness, and inclusivity; transparency, privacy, and interoperability; collaboration between people and AI systems; and the trustworthiness, reliability, and robustness of the technology.

"As researchers in industry, we take very seriously the trust people have in us to ensure advances are made with utmost consideration for human values," director of AI Research at Facebook, Yann LeCun, who will be joining the board of the new organisation, said in a statement.

Ralf Herbrich, Amazon director of Machine Learning, who will be representing Amazon on the board, said: "We're in a golden age of machine learning and AI. This partnership will ensure we're including the best and the brightest in this space in the conversation to improve customer trust and benefit society."

The organisation's board members will include academics, representatives from other non-for-profit organisations, and specialists in policy and ethics. The announcement states there will be equal representation of corporate and non-corporate members on the board.

Partnership on AI is already in talks with other professional and scientific organisations such as the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and non-profit research groups including the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence about how they can work together. But the nature of the partnerships is currently undetermined.

The new body is not the first non-for-profit organisation looking to tackle the ethical challenges that emerge from advancing AI. OpenAI, led by Tesla and SpaceX's Elon Musk, said it is looking to "advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return."

OpenAI raised $1 billion in funding last year and counts Google and Amazon Web Services among its supporters. According to reports, Partnership on AI has begun discussions with OpenAI about how they could potentially work together. The nature of this potential partnership also remains unclear.

Each of the companies in the partnership has had individual interest and work in the field of AI.

Cortana, Microsoft's intelligent personal assistant, used daily by more than 130 million people worldwide, is becoming not only more knowledgeable about users and the world around them, but smarter in its ability to put information into context.

Microsoft app MileIQ and Office 365's My Analytics are also powered by AI, and the company is looking to inject AI into customer relationship management so that salespeople can act on information based on the activities of customers happening outside their CRM system, such as social media.

Earlier this week, at Microsoft Ignite, the company's CEO Satya Nadella said, "As we infuse intelligence into everything, whether it's your keyboard, your camera, or business applications, we are essentially teaching applications to see, to hear, to predict, to learn and take action."

Facebook's research arm, Facebook AI Research (FAIR) has also been identifying ways to use AI to enhance user experience. FAIR announced last year that it was conducting research in areas like image recognition and natural language understanding.

Months later, in April, the company announced the introduction of a new Facebook feature called "automatic alternative text" that would automatically begin describing the content of photos to blind and visually impaired users. This feature is an advancement on screen reader apps used by blind and visually impaired people, which only describe text, links, and buttons.

Earlier this month, Google's UK-based AI lab DeepMind announced it had reached a major milestone in its journey to make machines talk like humans. Specifically, DeepMind's WaveNet neural network had reportedly closed the gap between machine-generated and human speech by 50 percent in US English and Mandarin Chinese, which marks a significant step forward to achieving natural-sounding speech in Google's talk-to-text systems.

IBM has also been adding unconventional skills to its supercomputer Watson, the latest being the ability to create a movie trailer. A month ago, 20th Century Fox trusted Watson with the task to create the trailer for its sci-fi drama Morgan, resulting in the first ever AI-made movie trailer.

The IBM Foundation also announced earlier this month it had teamed up with the American Federation of Teachers union to create an AI-based lesson plan tool called Teacher Advisor. The tool uses Watson to answer questions from educators and help them build personalised lesson plans, understand concepts, and learn strategies to improve student comprehension.

Teacher Advisor will be available as a free service to third-grade maths teachers across the US by the end of the year, with plans to add more subject areas and grade levels.

In the past few months, Amazon's voice-activated bluetooth speaker device Echo, which uses the artificially intelligent personal assistant app Alexa, has been a hit, with estimates of 1.5 million to 3 million Echos sold thus far. Among its features, the Echo has the ability to control third-party apps and smart appliances, answer questions, report the weather, add items to a shopping list, and order a taxi.

Last year, Amazon released Alexa Skills Kit, a collection of APIs and tools that will allow third-party developers to build new functions into the Amazon Echo.

A recent report claims Apple engineers are testing Amazon Echo outside of Apple's secretive campus.

The rising interest in AI is well reflected in the dollars being invested in AI-focused startups. According to research firm CB Insights, equity funding of AI startups peaked last quarter, with more than $1 billion being invested globally. More than $6 billion has been invested into such startups since 2014.

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