Paul Allen hires AI luminary to head new artificial intelligence institute

Microsoft cofounder, Paul Allen, is worth $15 billion. Allen could invest in 10-year US Treasuries, and he’d gross a billion every two years. That’s money making money without raising a finger. But Allen does raise a finger. In fact, he raises all ten and then borrows a couple more hands to complete his portfolio.
Founded in 1986, Vulcan is the umbrella company containing Allen’s investments, businesses, and philanthropic endeavors. These span commercial real estate, tech, research, pro sports, and museums. And now? Allen has lured long-time AI academic Oren Etzioni from his University of Washington post to head a new Vulcan project called the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence or AI2.
Why all the background? First, it demonstrates yet another investor with deep pockets, technical expertise, and vision, who wants to make real strides in artificial intelligence. Second, Allen has his hands in many pots—and not all those endeavors necessarily bear fruit or rapidly advance.
Project Halo, founded by Vulcan in 2001, was Allen’s first stab at artificial intelligence. The project’s stated goal was to create “a computer that contains large amounts of knowledge in machine-computable form that can answer questions, explain those answers, and discuss those answers with users.”
Most of that mission statement should sound familiar. IBM’s Watson, with its large database of topic-specific information and natural language processing, won Jeopardy using the first two points. But Project Halo hasn’t moved too far past figuring out how to cheaply and efficiently transfer information into their “Digital Aristotle.” Which is, presumably, where Dr. Etzioni comes in.
Etzioni went to Harvard and got his PhD at Carnegie Mellon. He’s been faculty at the University of Washington for 22 years and penned over 100 academic papers on search, data mining, agent technology, and artificial intelligence.
Etzioni’s MetaCrawler was a popular early internet search engine, and he founded and sold Netbot (a comparison shopping agent) and Farecast (the airline fare forecaster). Etzioni knows AI from both a theoretical and practical perspective.
So, what might such an expert do with significant funding from the likes of Allen and Vulcan? Well, that’s just the question. In the press release announcing Etzioni’s acquisition, Allen said he hoped AI2 would follow in the footsteps of his 200-person, $400 million dollar Allen Institute for Brain Science.
But it’s early going yet. No specific funding levels have been announced, and the fledgling AI2 has only 10 employees. Further, Etzioni admits there’s no clear path ahead, and competition for talent will be fierce.