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Are you illiterate about AI? Test your AI IQ

Can artificial intelligence write its own programs? Is there AI in your TV remote control? Researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence say that knowing the right answers to such questions is an essential part of being literate in our tech-driven society — and that most of us would get a failing grade.

A national survey, involving 1,547 adult Americans who were given a 20-question quiz about AI’s capabilities, found that only 16% of the test takers scored a passing grade of better than 60% on the quiz.

“The majority of Americans are AI illiterate,” Nicole DeCario and Oren Etzioni report today in a posting to PNW.ai, an information service provided by the institute, also known as AI2. Etzioni is AI2’s CEO, while DeCario leads AI2’s special projects team.

What’s your AI IQ? Take AI2’s quiz

The researchers acknowledge that the extent of AI illiteracy shouldn’t be surprising. “AI is not part of our schools’ curricula, and the main source of information about it today, according to our survey, is YouTube and social media,” they write.

However, they argue that a basic understanding of how AI works is “critical for informing everyday decisions, adopting appropriate economic policies and maintaining national security.”

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AI makes customer service bots sound more like humans

Earlier this year, Seattle-based WellSaid Labs helped create an AI disk jockey with a voice that sounds like it’s coming from a flesh-and-blood DJ. Now WellSaid’s lifelike voice bots could be coming to a customer-service line near you.

California-based Five9 says it will incorporate WellSaid’s voice synthesis technology into its Virtual Voiceover menu of synthetic voices suitable for self-service contact centers. The new capabilities will be provided to users of the Five9 Inference Studio 7 platform at no additional cost, with wide availability planned in early 2022.

WellSaid Labs, a three-year-old startup fostered at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s AI2 Incubator, takes advantage of artificial intelligence to produce natural-sounding synthetic voices like the ones that Five9 will give its Intelligent Virtual Agents, or IVAs.

“In our experience, the more lifelike an IVA can sound, the better the reception it will receive from the customer who is speaking with it,” Callan Schebella, Five9’s executive vice president for product management, said today in a news release. “We’re continually looking for the latest and greatest technologies to enhance the Studio platform, and we are excited to partner with WellSaid to bring this new innovation to our customers.”

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This AI has the upbeat sound of a DJ down pat

As he turns from a Foo Fighters tune to the Smashing Pumpkins, Andy sounds just like your typical alternative-rock DJ — but his tag line is positively inhuman.

“Ever feel like your day just needs a shot of pick-me-up? Well, that’s what we’re here for — to help turn that frown upside down and crank the dial to 11,” he says. “Yes, I may be a robot, but I still love to rock.”

The robot reference isn’t just a nod to his canned DJ cliches: In a sense, Andy really is a robot — as in ANDY, or Artificial Neural Disk JockeY. And thanks to Seattle-based WellSaid Labs and Super Hi-Fi, an AI-centric production company in Los Angeles, ANDY could soon be coming to a streaming music service near you.

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Startup’s AI software tackles stage fright

If you’re intimidated by the prospect of giving a speech, going through a job interview or doing a wedding toast, a Seattle startup called Yoodli might have just the thing: an AI-enabled software platform that analyzes your delivery and gives you tips for improvement — in a non-judgmental way.

Today the venture is coming out of stealth mode, opening up the waitlist for early access to their beta product and announcing a $1 million pre-seed funding round from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Madrona Venture Group.

Yoodli is a spinout from the incubator program at the institute, also known as AI2. Two of the founders — Varun Puri and Esha Joshi — are AI2 entrepreneurs-in-residence. The third founder is Ehsan Hoque, co-director of the Rochester Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Rochester. All three are drawing upon their personal experience as they take the leap into the startup world.

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Scientists unveil ‘wiring diagram’ for a tiny bit of brain

Neuroscientists from Seattle’s Allen Institute and other research institutions have wrapped up a five-year, multimillion-dollar project with the release of a high-resolution 3-D map showing the connections between 200,000 cells in a clump of mouse brain about as big as a grain of sand.

The data collection, which is now publicly available online, was developed as part of the Machine Intelligence From Cortical Networks program, or MICrONS for short. MICrONS was funded in 2016 with $100 million in federal grants to the Allen Institute and its partners from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the U.S. intelligence community’s equivalent of the Pentagon’s DARPA think tank.

MICrONS is meant to clear the way for reverse-engineering the structure of the brain to help computer scientists develop more human-like machine learning systems, but the database is likely to benefit biomedical researchers as well.

“We’re basically treating the brain circuit as a computer, and we asked three questions: What does it do? How is it wired up? What is the program?” R. Clay Reid, senior investigator at the Allen Institute and one of MICrONS’ lead scientists, said today in a news release. “Experiments were done to literally see the neurons’ activity, to watch them compute.”

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ManipulaTHOR lends virtual robots a hand (and an arm)

You can lead a virtual robot to a refrigerator, but you can’t make it pull out a drink. This is the problem that Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2, is addressing with a new breed of virtual robotic agent called ManipulaTHOR.

ManipulaTHOR adds a highly articulated robotic arm to the institute’s AI2-THOR artificial intelligence platform — which should provide lots more capability for testing the software for robots even before they’re built.

AI2-THOR was programmed to find its way through virtual versions of indoor environments, such as kitchens and bathrooms. It could use computer vision to locate everyday objects, but the model didn’t delve deeply into the mechanics of moving those objects. Instead, it just levitated them, as if by video-game magic.

Now AI2-THOR is getting real.

“Imagine a robot being able to navigate a kitchen, open a refrigerator and pull out a can of soda,” AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni said in a news release. “This is one of the biggest and yet often overlooked challenges in robotics, and AI2-THOR is the first to design a benchmark for the task of moving objects to various locations in virtual rooms, enabling reproducibility and measuring progress.”

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Allen Institute for AI expands its frontiers

Two and a half years after the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, his legacy in science and philanthropy is still being reshaped — and this time, the reshaping involves two of his deepest passions: conservation and computation.

Over the next few months, an entire portfolio of AI-centric environmental projects will be shifted from Vulcan Inc., the diversified holding company that Allen created, to the nonprofit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (a.k.a. AI2).

“It’s a classic Paul Allen move,” Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf told GeekWire.

Hilf said the shift is part of a years-long program to follow through on the “testamentary directives” that Allen laid out before he died in 2018 at the age of 65.

The late billionaire’s sister, Jody Allen, and her executives were left with the task of reorganizing a set of enterprises including real estate holdings and investmentsmuseumsscientific institutes, a production company and a launch company, plus Seattle’s Cinerama, the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Some aspects of that reorganization have stirred controversy, but Hilf said the transition to an expanded AI2 should be straightforward.

“All of the AI products and the teams that are currently managed by Vulcan will transfer in to that new entity and expand the mission of AI2,” he said. “It’s really bringing together Paul’s vision for AI, improving life on Earth, human lives, and leveraging AI2’s mission of ‘AI for the Common Good.’”

The projects include EarthRanger, which uses sensors and software to track endangered species and fight illegal poaching; Skylight, which monitors maritime traffic to head off illegal fishing; Vulcan’s climate modeling group, which is developing more accurate climate projections; and the Center for Machine Learning, which applies AI to a wide range of environmental challenges.

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Scientists will map effects of Alzheimer’s disease

A $40.5 million collaborative research center headquartered at Seattle’s Allen Institute aims to create high-resolution maps of brains ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease, to trace new paths to early diagnosis and treatment.

The center will draw upon expertise not only at the institute, but also at UW Medicine and Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. Funding for the next five years comes from the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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Study spotlights 3-D mouse brain atlas

The third time’s the charm for the Allen Institute for Brain Science’s 3-D atlas of the mouse brain.

Version 3 of the atlas, known as the Allen Mouse Brain Common Coordinate Framework or CCFv3, is the subject of a research paper published today in the journal Cell. It builds on a partial brain map that focused on the mouse cortex and was released in 2016.

Previous versions of the atlas were rendered with lower-resolution 3-D maps. The latest high-resolution maps are fine enough to pinpoint the locations of individual brain cells — which is crucial for interpreting datasets that contain thousands or millions of pieces of information.

“In the old days, people would define different regions of the brain by eye. As we get more and more data, that manual curation doesn’t scale anymore,” Lydia Ng, senior director of technology at the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, explained in a news release. “Just as we have a reference genome sequence, you need a reference anatomy.”

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Allen Institute reorganizes brain science division

Allen Institute sculpture
A sculpture titled “MIRALL” stands sentry at the Allen Institute’s headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union district. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle’s Allen Institute is heading into a new phase of research into neuroscience — a phase that includes reorganizing its current activities as well as adding new ones.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science, which is the largest division under the institute’s umbrella, was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2003 and has continued on its mission since Allen’s death in 2018. It’s grown to more than 300 scientists and staff members who work in two broad research areas.

One program, known as Cell Types, focuses on mapping out a “periodic table” of brain cells. The Allen Institute’s new 16-year plan calls for the Allen Institute for Brain Science to focus solely on studying brain cell types and neural connectivity.

The second program, known as MindScope, seeks to understand how the brain’s neural circuits produce the sense of vision. That field of study, along with the Allen Brain Observatory, will transition out of the Allen Institute for Brain Science to become a separate program at the Allen Institute.

A new division, due for launch in 2022, will focus on research related to neural computation and dynamics.

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