FACEBOOK IS OPENING a new artificial intelligence lab in Paris after building a dedicated AI team that spans its offices in New York and Silicon Valley.
The New York University professor who oversees the company’s AI work, Yann LeCun, was born and educated in Paris. LeCun tells WIRED that he and the company are interested in tapping the research talent available in Europe. Alongside London, he says, Paris was an obvious choice for a new lab. “We plan to work openly with and invest in the AI research community in France, the EU, and beyond,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the move.
LeCun is one of the researchers at the heart of an AI movement known as deep learning. Since the 1980s, he and a small group of other researchers have worked to build networks of computer hardware that approximate the networks of neurons in the brain. In recent years, the likes of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have embraced these “neural nets” as a way of handling everything from voice and image recognition to language translation.
Another researcher who bootstrapped this movement, University of Toronto professor Geoff Hinton, is now at Google. Like Facebook, Google is investing heavily in this rapidly evolving technology, and the two companies are competing for a rather small talent pool. After acquiring a deep learning startup called DeepMind, based in the UK and founded by an English researcher named Demis Hassabis, Google already operates a European AI lab of sorts.
Chris Nicholson, founder of the San Francisco-based AI startup Skymind, points out the many of the key figures behind deep learning are European, including not only LeCun, Hinton, and Hassabis, but also University of Montreal professor Yoshua Bengio (though he was educated in Canada). “All of them are now employed by North American organizations,” Nicholson says. “There are a lot of investment gaps in European venture capital, which means that Europe has a lot of ideas and people that either come to America or never make an impact on the mainstream.”
Today, Facebook uses deep learning as a way of recognizing images on its social network, and it’s exploring the technology as a means of personalizing your Facebook News Feed so that you’re more likely to enjoy what you see. The next big step, LeCun says, is natural language processing, which aims to give machines the power to understand not just individual words but entire sentences and paragraphs.