AI2 takes over Vulcan’s portfolio of environmental data projects

Skylight operations center
A watchkeeper analyzes Skylight rendezvous alerts at an operations center in Accra, Ghana. Skylight is a maritime monitoring program that will be transferred from Vulcan Inc. to the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. (MMCC Zone F Photo)

Two and a half years after the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, his legacy in science and philanthropy is still being reshaped — and this time, the reshaping involves two of his deepest passions: conservation and computation.

Over the next few months, an entire portfolio of AI-centric environmental projects will be shifted from Vulcan Inc., the diversified holding company that Allen created, to the nonprofit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (a.k.a. AI2).

“It’s a classic Paul Allen move,” Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf told GeekWire.

Hilf said the shift is part of a years-long program to follow through on the “testamentary directives” that Allen laid out before he died in 2018 at the age of 65.

The late billionaire’s sister, Jody Allen, and her executives were left with the task of reorganizing a set of enterprises including real estate holdings and investments, museums, scientific institutes, a production company and a launch company, plus Seattle’s Cinerama, the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Some aspects of that reorganization have stirred controversy, but Hilf said the transition to an expanded AI2 should be straightforward.

“All of the AI products and the teams that are currently managed by Vulcan will transfer in to that new entity and expand the mission of AI2,” he said. “It’s really bringing together Paul’s vision for AI, improving life on Earth, human lives, and leveraging AI2’s mission of ‘AI for the Common Good.’”

The projects include EarthRanger, which uses sensors and software to track endangered species and fight illegal poaching; Skylight, which monitors maritime traffic to head off illegal fishing; Vulcan’s climate modeling group, which is developing more accurate climate projections; and the Center for Machine Learning, which applies AI to a wide range of environmental challenges.

Climate modeling team
Vulcan’s climate modeling team works together prior to the coronavirus pandemic. (Vulcan Inc. Photo)

Hilf said about 50 employees would be transferred from Vulcan Inc. to AI2 to continue work on those projects as well as others that are under development. “The IP in all of this is humans,” he said. “Talent is priority No. 1.”

AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, said the new researchers will represent a substantial addition to the 120 employees currently involved in nonprofit research activities at the institute. Nearly 100 additional employees work on the AI2 Incubator, which fosters AI-centric startups.

Vulcan’s projects will be added to an AI2 portfolio of programs such as the Semantic Scholar search engine and the CORD-19 database for coronavirus research.

“You can’t imagine the enthusiasm that I have personally, and that the people here have, to expand that to include conservation and fighting illegal fishing, things like that,” he said. “Our computer vision folks, for example, are just incredibly excited about the potential of the data that’s coming into this platform.”

New AI-based applications that take advantage of data from satellites and sensors are sure to be on the agenda.

“We’ve built a platform that allows us to build fairly sophisticated machine-learning models as these new data sources come online,” Hilf said. “Then you step back a little bit and look at applying that to all sorts of things. Maritime, deforestation, mining … If you get this picture of the world, then you can start to look for certain types of behavioral patterns.”

Other future frontiers could focus on acoustic monitoring of dolphin whistles, or automated aerial tracking of endangered orcas.

Since its founding in 2013, AI2 has spawned a string of successful commercial ventures, including (which was bought by Baidu in 2017) and (which was acquired by Apple last year). But Hilf emphasized that the projects now coming under AI2’s wing aren’t necessarily meant to be the stuff of startups.

“That wouldn’t be the design goal. Could something like that happen? Maybe,” he said. “But it might also spin out to another nonprofit as well.”

Hilf cited the Allen Coral Atlas, which started out as a Paul Allen project but is now led by Arizona State University, as an example of that kind of scenario.

Even after the managerial switch, the bonds between Vulcan and AI2 will be strong. Although Hilf declined to provide details on the Allen estate’s level of financial support, he said “AI2 will still be fully supported.” Chris Emura, Vulcan’s executive director of engineering, will switch over to the AI2 side of the fence and report to Etzioni. Meanwhile, Hilf will stay on as the chair of AI2’s board of directors.

“Oren won’t be able to shake me from his life,” Hilf joked.

For his part, Etzioni admits to having mixed feelings about taking on another 50 employees over the course of just a few months — and hiring still more researchers, engineers and business experts at the same time.

“Candidly, I’m terrified — but let me tell you why. I have an awesome responsibility to these people, every single one of them, to treat them well, to integrate them, to give them a solid foundation for doing their job. That is a big responsibility for a first-time CEO,” Etzioni said.

“But now that we know that Bill is going to be spending, uh, at least a day a week, I know who to delegate it to,” he added impishly.