By Reed Albergotti
Elon Musk made the electric car cool. Mark Zuckerberg created FacebookFB +1.23%. Ashton Kutcher portrayed AppleAAPL +1.08% founder Steve Jobs in a movie. Now, the three are joining in a $40 million investment in Vicarious FPC, a secretive artificial-intelligence company.
The funding round, the second major infusion of capital for the company in two years, is the latest sign of life in artificial intelligence. Last month, GoogleGOOG +0.07% acquired another AI company called Deep Mind for $400 million.
Vicarious has an ambitious goal: Replicating the neocortex, the part of the brain that sees, controls the body, understands language and does math. Translate the neocortex into computer code and “you have a computer that thinks like a person,” says Vicarious co-founder Scott Phoenix. “Except it doesn’t have to eat or sleep.”
It may be decades before companies like Vicarious can create computers with human-like intelligence. But web outfits like Google, YahooYHOO -2.04%, Facebook and others have more immediate uses for artificial intelligence.
Facebook, for instance, wants to turn the massive amounts of information shared by its users into a database of wisdom. Ask Facebook a question, and, if all goes to plan, it will spit out an answer based on facts users have shared. Facebook is also using artificial intelligence for facial recognition to identify users in photos. Facebook recently hired a leader in artificial intelligence, Yann LeCun, to run a new lab.
A Facebook spokesman said Zuckerberg’s investment in Vicarious, which hasn’t been previously reported, is a personal one and does not reflect Facebook’s interest in using Vicarious software.
Musk did not respond to a request for comment. Kutcher declined to comment.
Phoenix, the co-founder, says Vicarious aims beyond image recognition. He said the next milestone will be creating a computer that can understand not just shapes and objects, but the textures associated with them. For example, a computer might understand “chair.” It might also comprehend “ice.” Vicarious wants to create a computer that will understand a request like “show me a chair made of ice.”
Phoenix hopes that, eventually, Vicarious’s computers will learn to how to cure diseases, create cheap, renewable energy, and perform the jobs that employ most human beings. “We tell investors that right now, human beings are doing a lot of things that computers should be able to do,” he says.
Vicarious, whose other co-founder was neuroscientist Dileep George, is a long way from accomplishing its goals. Phoenix says the company won’t make a profit anytime soon and it has said very little about how its technology works. It hasn’t even disclosed its exact address, for fear it might be the target of corporate espionage or hacking.
Vicarious’s backers include a venture fund run by PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, which was among those who invested $1.2 million in 2010. In 2012, a new group of investors, including Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, injected $15 million. Kutcher’s investment comes via his fund, “A-Grade Investments.”
The latest funding round was led by venture capital firm Formation 8. “Companies that pioneer a fundamental technological breakthrough often come to define entire industries,” said Formation 8 founder Joe Lonsdale, who also co-founded data-mining software maker Palantir Technologies. “I believe Vicarious has the potential to become one of these companies.”