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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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White House enlists AI for war on coronavirus

CORD-19 logo
The logo for the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, is a stylized coronavirus. (CORD-19 Graphic)

A consortium of tech leaders — including Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s charity — today unveiled an AI-enabled database that’s meant to give researchers quicker, surer access to resources relating to coronavirus and how to stop it.

The COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, or CORD-19, was created in response to a request from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. It takes advantage of AI tools to organize more than 24,000 articles about the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes it.

“We think that AI has an important part to play in solving this problem,” said Doug Raymond, general manager for the Semantic Scholar academic search engine at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2.

AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, said his team leapt at the opportunity to participate in CORD-19. “We hesitated all of negative-two seconds,” he joked.

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Scientists capture a rare brain cell recording

The von Economo neuron is a large and distinct looking brain cell that has been found in only a few animals, including humans. (Allen Institute Photo)

Researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science have captured the first-ever recording of electrical spikes from von Economo neurons — a rare kind of cell that’s found deep in the human brain and may be associated with social intelligence.

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AI2 sets up robo-challenge in virtual and real rooms

RoboTHOR Challenge
The RoboTHOR 2020 Challenge will test how well computer models for visual identification and navigation translate into real-world robotic performance. (AI2 Illustration / Winson Han)

Computer vision and navigation have improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to artificial intelligence, but how well do the computer models work in the real world?

That’s the challenge that Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is setting for AI researchers over the next few months, with geek fame and glory as the prize.

AI2’s RoboTHOR Challenge, which kicks off today, capitalizes on years of work that’s been done to train AI agents in synthetic environments.

Ani Kembhavi, a research scientist at AI2, says RoboTHOR focuses on the next step. “If you can train a deep-learning, computer vision model to do something in an embodied environment … how well would this model work when deployed in an actual robot?” he told GeekWire.

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Univ. of Washington president joins AI2’s board

UW President Ana Mari Cauce
University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce has joined the board of directors for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, forging an even closer connection between two of Seattle’s premier research institutions.

The addition, which took effect Jan. 1, leverages existing ties between UW and the legacy of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who created AI2 in 2014. The entrepreneur and philanthropist, who passed away in 2018, is memorialized by UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni said Cauce and Microsoft Healthcare corporate VP Peter Lee, who joined the board in 2018 not long before Allen’s death, will set the stage for a new phase in the institute’s growth.

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AI2 Incubator hatches $10M fund for startups

AI2 offices
The AI2 Incubator program draws upon the resources of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle. (AI2 Photo)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is kicking things up more than a notch for AI startups with a $10 million pre-seed fund for its incubator program.

The AI2 Incubator’s fund is backed by some of the nation’s top venture capital institutions, such as Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins, and New York’s Two Sigma Ventures.

But wait … there’s more: The fund also draws upon high-profile investors and mentors including Tableau Software CEO Adam Selipsky, Drive.ai co-founder Carol Reiley and Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke.

The new fund announcement comes just a day after GeekWire first reported Apple’s acquisition of Xnor.ai, a Seattle startup incubated inside of AI2.

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