Facebook's AI arm explains its investment in robotics

Defending its latest round of hiring from academia, Facebook said it's hiring in the field robotics in part because that's where the talent is.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

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Facebook on Tuesday officially announced that it's hired some of academia's top AI researchers, defending its practice of drawing talent from universities around the globe.

Facebook AI Research (FAIR) "relies on open partnerships to help drive AI forward, where researchers have the freedom to control their own agenda," Facebook Chief AI Scientist Yann LeCun wrote in a blog post. "Ours frequently collaborate with academics from other institutions, and we often provide financial and hardware resources to specific universities. It's through working together and openly publishing research that we'll make progress."

The latest hires include Carnegie Mellon Prof. Jessica Hodgins, who will lead a new FAIR lab in Pittsburgh focused on robotics, large-scale and lifelong learning, common sense reasoning, and AI in support of creativity. She'll be joined by Carnegie Mellon Prof. Abhinav Gupta, another robotics expert. Both will continue to advise students and teach at Carnegie Mellon on a part-time basis.

Facebook has taken some heat for hiring academics like Hodgins and Gupta, leaving them with less time to teach the next generation of researchers. The new Pittsburgh lab also drew questions about Facebook's interest in robotics.

On a conference call with reporters, LeCun said Facebook was primarily motivated to open the lab due to research trends.

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"Some of the most interesting advances in AI and machine learning in the last year or two have been from people interested in applying machine learning to robotics," he said. Furthermore, he said, there are simply "a lot of really talented people" working in robotics -- and Facebook won't be able to recruit them without making investments in that area.

In terms of industry trends, LeCun noted that within the next few years, "it's quite possible robotics will play a role in connecting people with each other, which is what Facebook is all about." He gave the example of telepresence technologies that may need robotics fully operate.

Beyond that, he said, Facebook has a practical interest in robotics research, given that it uses robots today for maintaining data centers.

Facebook also officially announced Tuesday that University of Washington Prof. Luke Zettlemoyer, a natural language processing expert, is joining FAIR's Seattle office. The New York Times reported earlier this year that Zettlemoyer agreed to join Facebook after turning down a salary at Google that would have more than tripled his $180,000 university salary.

Additionally, Oxford Prof. Andrea Vedaldi, a computer vision expert, will join the FAIR London office, while Jitendra Malik, one of the most influential researchers in computer vision, recently joined from UC Berkeley to lead FAIR out of Menlo Park, California.

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