5 Details About Vicarious, The A.I Company Zuckerberg and Musk Invested In

Friday, 21 March 2014 - 1:25PM
Friday, 21 March 2014 - 1:25PM
5 Details About Vicarious, The A.I Company Zuckerberg and Musk Invested In
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It was announced today that Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have clubbed together to invest $40 Million in the secretive artificial intelligence company, Vicarious. That's two of the biggest names in technology investing in a mysterious organization that is doing some extraordinary things in the field of computing. A move like this is certain to raise the eyebrows of curious minds everywhere, not because they are crying conspiracy, but because wherever Elon Musk is, cool things tend to follow. So what exactly is Vicarious, and what are they trying to achieve?


1. They're Developing A Machine That Can Learn

The overriding goal behind everything Vicarious does is to create a new level of artificial intelligence, specifically an A.I that can learn and interpret things just like a human. Here's the blurb from their official website:


"Vicarious is developing machine learning software based on the computational principles of the human brain. Our first technology is a visual perception system that interprets the contents of photographs and videos in a manner similar to humans. Powering this technology is a new computational paradigm we call the 'Recursive Cortical Network'.


Yes, that basically means they are trying to reconstruct the neocortex of the human brain....and put it in a computer. In humans and other mammals, the neocortex is the part of the brain that deals with higher level functions such as reasoning, conscious thought and sensory perceptions like spatial awareness. They might be a couple of decades away, but the work Vicarious is doing could one day produce the sort of technology that science fiction writers could only dream of.


2. Their technology beat CAPTCHA.

As an internet user, you've probably squinted more than once at a CAPTCHA box as you try and replicate the blurry digits held within it, all so you can prove you are a human being and successfully purchase tickets for that gig you so want to go to. CAPTCHA stands for Complete Automated Public Turing Test to tell computers and Humans Apart. As its name suggests, it was created as part of a reverse Turing test that could successfully tell humans and computers apart. It worked based on the theory that a computer could not visually interpret and reproduce the text displayed in the white box. But in October 2013, technology developed by Vicarious successfully beat Captcha so reliably many theorized that it rendered the test ineffective. But not everybody was buying it...


3. Their Breakthrough Was Unconvincing

The October announcement was made with great fanfare, but many commentators were disappointed by the lack of evidence. John Bohannon was one such commentator.


"Vicarious has credibility, given the scientists working there, but its current offering of proof is little more than a press release," Bohannon wrote in Wired. "The company has released no software code and no technical explanation, and as Vicarious co-founder Dileep George said in an email 'There are no current plans to write up a paper, but things could change in the future.'"


Bohannon went on to do a live test of the Vicarious program and found that it was not the complete piece of work the organization had initially suggested, however it was still able to beat the CAPTCHA system in a number of situations.


4. Facebook's Involvement Goes Beyond Personal Matters

With today's announcement came a statement from a Facebook spokesperson. It said that Zuckerberg's investment in the project was purely personal. Indeed, this personal link to Vicarious does exist and it comes in the form of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz who helped get Vicarious off the ground in their initial round of fundraising. But while that might be a nice cover story for Zuckerberg, the social media behemoth he created has more than a couple of reasons to be interested in an organization like Vicarious, which would suggest that this is not a strictly personal investment.


This Facebook investment in Vicarious represents the latest installment in a growing technology arms race between internet giants like Facebook and Google. Both Facebook and Google have been making significant movements towards diversification in the sector in recent months. For example, in January of this year, it was revealed that Google planned to acquire the A.I developer, Deep Mind. The Deep Mind acquisition followed a series of Google acquisitions in the tech industry including the brilliant robotics company, Boston Dynamics, and a $3 billion acquisition of the smart thermostat firm, Nest Labs. These are just two examples of the search engine giant's diversification, but a quick web search will show that there are many, many more.


Facebook have been slightly slower off the mark, but Zuckerberg and co. recently started a venture to set up a new Artificial Intelligence Lab in New York City. The lab will be headed up by A.I expert Yann Lecun, whose expertise lie very much within the scope of the work being done at California-based Vicarious. Lecun is one of the leaders in Computational Neuroscience and has made some groundbreaking strides in the the area of character recognition.


5. Ashton Kutcher Also Invested

It wasn't just tech legends Musk and Zuckerberg getting in on the Vicarious action. Ashton Kutcher aka Kelso, also invested. While you might be inclined to say that this is a slightly odd move for the actor, it's not as weird as you think. For a start, Kutcher has a healthy amount of money in the bank, but more importantly, when it comes to computing Kutcher knows his stuff. Kutcher's VC company, A-Grade investments has invested in a number of tech organizations including AirBnB and Spotify, and the actor has often spoken of his love for technology and design.



There is still a lot to learn about Vicarious and their work, but one thing is for sure, this investment by Musk, Zuckerberg and Ashton Kutcher (yes, Ashton Kutcher) will no doubt lead to a significant development in their work. And, with the big screen release of Wall Pfister's Transcendence next month, there is going to be an awful lot of noise in the various conspiracy forums about what the likes of Google and Facebook are up to. Don't panic though, because the chances are these guys are more likely to want new ways of getting your data and interaction than launching a real-life 'Skynet'.