Facebook is relying on robotics to lure AI researchers

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(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. is hiring five well-regarded computer scientists in the U.S. and Europe, adding new facilities to bolster its artificial intelligence research division, and focus on robotics and related-technologies.

The company, which is in a race with other large technology firms to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence and apply these breakthroughs to its products, said it was hiring researchers in Menlo Park, California, where it is headquartered, as well as in Pittsburgh, Seattle and London.

Facebook’s AI Research division (FAIR) is hiring Jessica Hodgins and Abhinav Gupta, both currently professors at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to head a new lab in the city focusing on robotics.

Facebook has not been at the forefront of robotic research. However Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist, said having a robotics program was essential for recruiting the most promising young scientists and engineers to Facebook. "We can’t attract other researchers without having research in this area," he said.

Researchers at Facebook have recently created a program aimed at AI being able to a find objects within your house. This year the tech company has also patented a self-balancing robot. LeCun said Facebook currently uses a few robots to help maintain some of its data centers.

Facebook’s more pressing challenge is using AI to help manage the vast amount of content on its platforms. While many technology companies, including Alphabet Inc., Twitter Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Salesforce.com Inc., have been working on getting machines to better understand language, improvements in this area are considered particularly important for Facebook, where the proliferation of false news and extremist propaganda on its social network have provoked popular and government backlash against it.

Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has told the U.S. Congress that eventually artificial intelligence should be able to help police such content, but today machine’s ability to understand natural language -- and its context -- are too limited.

The company said it was hiring Luke Zettlemoyer, an expert on natural language processing at the University of Washington, to join its AI research team in Seattle. It also said has recruited two computer vision researchers, Jitendra Malik, a well-known scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, who has joined Facebook to head up its AI research efforts in Menlo Park, and Andrea Vedaldi, an associate professor at the University of Oxford, who will join Facebook’s London AI research team.

LeCun said Vedaldi would work alongside a group of researchers working on natural language processing that Facebook acquired last month through the purchase of their London-based startup Bloomsbury AI. The London and Pittsburgh offices add to FAIR’s five existing labs in Menlo Park, New York City, Seattle, Montreal and Paris.

The intensity of the war for AI talent has helped drive salaries for top researchers to record levels, with some of the best known academics able to secure multi-million-dollar, multi-year contracts. In some cases, technology companies have raided entire academic departments, such as when Uber in 2015 hired 50 researchers, or one third of the workforce, from Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics lab in Pittsburgh.

LeCun said working in robotics was important for exploring ways to make machine learning more efficient and work better for real world applications. "We would like to figure out how to train machines without having to have them interact with humans for thousands of hours," he said. "We think research in complex robotics will lead to advances there."

Bloomberg News