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Partnership on AI formed by Google Facebook Amazon IBM and Microsoft

Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft are joining forces to create a new AI partnership dedicated to advancing public understanding of the sector, as well as coming up with standards for future researchers to abide by.

Going by the unwieldy name of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, the alliance isn’t a lobbying organisation (at least, it says it “does not intend” to lobby government bodies). Instead, it says it will “conduct research, recommend best practices, and publish research under an open license in areas such as ethics, fairness and inclusivity; transparency, privacy, and interoperability; collaboration between people and AI systems; and the trustworthiness, reliability and robustness of the technology”.

There will be equal representation between corporate and non-corporate members on the board of the partnership, and it hopes to invite “academics, non-profits and specialists in policy and ethics” to join.

Each of the five founding corporate members has strong AI research teams, some of which have become household names, such as IBM’s Watson and Amazon’s Alexa. Google’s involvement with the body is explicitly through its London-based DeepMind subsidiary, a pure research organisation that hit headlines in March when it built the first ever machine to beat a world-class human player of the ancient Asian board game Go.

No Apple, no Elon Musk
Yet some organisations are conspicuous by their absence from the body.

'Partnership on AI' formed by Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft
‘Partnership on AI’ formed by Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft

Apple, which has been loudly trumpeting its own AI efforts in areas such as personal assistants, image recognition and voice control, is not included in the group. The company has a long history of going it alone even when other tech giants bury the hatchet.

In 2015, for instance, Apple filed its own opposition to the UK’s Investigatory Powers bill (also known as the Snooper’s Charter) even though Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo had all joined forces to oppose it. In March this year, it finally joined that coalition.

Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz, one of the partnership’s two interim co-chairs, said “We’ve been in discussions with Apple, I know they’re enthusiastic about this effort, and I’d personally hope to see them join.” Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

Absent too is OpenAI, the Elon Musk-backed research outfit which is seeking to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole”. With funding of $1bn (£777m), the group is one of the industry’s best-funded independent AI research labs, and its aims seem to complement those of the Partnership.

“We’re in the process of inviting many many different research labs and groups,” said Mustafa Suleyman or Deep Mind, the other interim co-chair. “We encourage there to be a diverse range of effort in AI, and we think that’s a great thing. We’re going to be really opening this up as widely as possible to different efforts.” OpenAI’s co-founder and CTO, Greg Brockman, said “We’re happy to see the launch of the group — coordination in the industry is good for everyone. We’re looking forward to non-profits being included as first-class members in the future.”

It’s also not the first time DeepMind has promised a body aimed at supporting AI ethics. When the company was acquired by Google back in 2014, part of the acquisition deal saw Google promise to form an AI ethics board to ensure the new technology was not abused.

Two-and-a-half years on, however, and it is unclear whether the board has ever met, or even who is on it. DeepMind has regularly declined to comment on it, although it has formed a second ethics board focused purely on overseeing the company’s research on healthcare AI.

DeepMind’s Suleyman said this latest group “doesn’t replace” the internal ethics board butit complements it. “That board is a Google Deep Mind effort that we’ve been working very hard on, we’ve been making a lot of progress toward.”

Suleyman also promised that the partnership would meet “frequently”.

Murray Shanahan is a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, whose research into deep symbolic reinforcement learning could solve AL’s reliance on vast quantities of data. He welcomed the creation of the partnership.

Research will ‘maximise societal benefits and tackle ethical concerns’
“A small number of large corporations are today the powerhouses behind the development of sophisticated artificial intelligence. The inauguration of the partnership on AI is a very welcome step towards ensuring this technology is used wisely,” he said.

Ralf Herbrich, the director of machine learning science and core machine learning at Amazon, said: “We’re in a golden age of machine learning and AI. This partnership will ensure we’re including the best and the brightest in this space in the conversation to improve customer trust and benefit society.”

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In a joint statement from Suleyman and Google’s Greg Corrado, the pair said they “strongly support an open, collaborative process for developing AI.

“This group is a huge step forward, breaking down barriers for AI teams to share best practices, research ways to maximise societal benefits and tackle ethical concerns, and make it easier for those in other fields to engage with everyone’s work. We’re really proud of how this has come together, and we’re looking forward to working with everyone inside and outside the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to make sure AI has the broad and transformative impact we all want to see.”

Facebook’s director of AI research, Yann LeCun, said: “By openly collaborating with our peers and sharing findings, we aim to push new boundaries every day, not only within Facebook, but across the entire research community.”

IBM’s Francesca Rossi added: “This partnership will provide consumer and industrial users of cognitive systems a vital voice in the advancement of the defining technology of this century – one that will foster collaboration between people and machines to solve some of the world’s most enduring problems – in a way that is both trustworthy and beneficial.”

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