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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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Movie-watching mice pose a neurological mystery

Jerome Lecoq
The Allen Institute’s Jerome Lecoq, one of the lead authors of a mouse-brain study, works on one of the 2-photon microscopes that was used to record neural activity in more than 200 mice. (Allen Institute Photo)

For years, neuroscientists have been monitoring the brain activity of mice as they looked at a wide range of images — including the film-noir classic “Touch of Evil” — in hopes of discovering deep insights about the workings of the visual system. Now they’ve come upon a plot twist worthy of director Orson Welles himself.

The latest results, reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science and at the University of Washington, suggest that more than 90% of the neurons in the visual cortex don’t work the way scientists thought.

“We thought that there are simple principles according to which these neurons process visual information, and those principles are all in the textbooks,” Christof Koch, the brain institute’s chief scientist and president, said in a news release. ”But now that we can survey tens of thousands of cells at once, we get a more subtle — and much more complicated picture.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“To me, that’s the business. In some sense, that’s the exciting thing,” Michael Buice, an associate investigator at the Allen Institute and one of the study’s lead authors, told GeekWire. “We’re in a more interesting place than we thought.”

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Allen Institute gives a boost to cell researchers

Samantha Morris in lab
Biomedical researcher Samantha Morris, shown here in her lab at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is one of the newly named Allen Distinguished Investigators. ““This award is enabling us to take a big risk in our arena by generating a completely new technology, one which will be useful to the scientific community. That’s really exciting for us,” she said. (Washington University in St. Louis Photo)

The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a division of Seattle’s Allen Institute, is making a total of $7.5 million in awards to its latest class of five biomedical researchers.

The themes for this year’s Allen Distinguished Investigators focus on stem cell therapies and single-cell interactions in their native environments.

“The field of stem cell biology has the potential to change how we treat diseases by helping precision medicine, and there’s so much we still don’t understand about the interplay between cells in living tissues or organs,” Kathy Richmond, director of the Frontiers Group, said today in a news release.

“Our 2019 Allen Distinguished Investigators are pushing their fields in these two areas, through new technology development, probing pivotal interactions in the body that cause health to fail, and generating creative new stem cell models that will improve our understanding of different human diseases,” she said.

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Allen Institute maps out ‘org chart’ for brain

Allen Institute researchers
Researchers Hongkui Zeng, Julie Harris and Hannah Choi check out a brain connectivity image at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. (Allen Institute Photo)

Researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute say a new and improved map of the mouse brain reveals not only how different regions are connected, but how those connections are ordered in a hierarchical way.

They add that the mapping techniques behind their study, which was published today by the journal Nature, could shed light on how diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or schizophrenia tangle up connections in the human brain.

The map produced by the study is technically known as a medium-scale “connectome.” It’s been variously compared to a wiring diagram, organizational chart or subway map for the brain. An initial version of the map was published five years ago — and at the time, it was hailed as a landmark for brain science.

Like that earlier version of the Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas, the newly published map was created by injecting glow-in-the-dark viruses into the brains of mice, and then tracking how brain impulses lit up different types of brain cells.

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Semantic Scholar takes in the full sweep of science

Semantic Scholar screengrab
The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s academic search engine, Semantic Scholar, keeps track of more than 175 million research papers from all fields of science. (Semantic Scholar Graphic)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence says its academic search engine, Semantic Scholar, is now in high gear — thanks to a power boost from Microsoft that helped expand its reach to every field of science.

Over the course of just a few months, Semantic Scholar’s database has gone from indexing 40 million research papers in computer science and biomedicine to taking in more than 175 million papers. The database not only covers the time-honored physical sciences, but also political science and sociology, art and philosophy.

“That’s enabled us to take the research that we’ve done in making AI a tool for overcoming information overload in science [and turn it into] a tool that is now usable by, essentially all scholars around the world,” Doug Raymond, general manager of Semantic Scholar, told GeekWire.

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Brain wave recording goes into overdrive

Neuropixels researchers
Severine Durand and Tamina Ramirez, researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, review data collected from mice using the Neuropixels brain-probing system. (Allen Institute Photo)

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science is sharing 70 trillion bytes’ worth of data documenting electrical activity in mouse brains, collected by a new type of silicon probe that can monitor hundreds of neurons simultaneously.

The Neuropixels system, developed by an international collaboration that includes the Allen Institute, could be adapted to record brain activity in human patients as well, said Josh Siegle, a senior scientist at the institute who works with the probes.

“The application I’m most interested in is decoding the communication patterns of the brain, and really understanding how information is transmitted between regions,” Siegle told GeekWire. “What are the transmission protocols?”

Neuropixels has already produced insights into the brain’s inner workings, Siegle said. This week, the institute is due to publish findings on the BioRxiv preprint server that confirm hierarchical patterns of connectivity in the brain.

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