Above: Mark Zuckerberg. Image by FLD / Shutterstock.com
“It’s the smart move,” Michael Corleone says after he’s unmasked the traitor Tessio in The Godfather. “If I was in his shoes, I would’ve done the same thing.”
In a move that will surely surprise no one who ever read a sci-fi novel, those celebrity technocrats Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are joining the celebrity TV ‘actor’ Ashton Kutcher in forming a corporation that wants to build the first fully-functioning artificial human brain which, umm, thinks the way you think.
The cantankerous Facebook CEO, the perpetually occupied co-founder of Tesla, and the dude from Fox TV’s That 70s Show who single-handedly turned Two & A Half Men from the funniest show on the boob tube to the whiney mumbling of a pair of mercenaries flatly reading barbs off a teleprompter, have all come together, according to much Hollywood gossip, because, although Kutcher is pretty and mediocre as an artiste, he is not just a pretty face. He is a persistent, enterprising hustler of the first order, according to the likes of Steve Wozniak, whom he has been working diligently to charm into his circle for the last five years, albeit to no avail. At any rate, Zuckerberg, Musk and Kutcher own equal parts of a US$40m investment in a new kind of artificial intelligence called Vicarious, according to Wired. At the same time, according to Vicarious’ PR people, everything is ‘top secret.’ According to TMZ, however, Kutcher is on his phone issuing bulletins hourly.
The San Francisco-based startup aims to recreate your neo-cortex, the part of your brain that handles cognitive functions like language and math. Sounds like an ambitious, expensive goal, but the company’s efforts are part of a larger trend across the tech world as Google, IBM and Microsoft have already thrown hundreds of millions into A.I., not to mention a crew of neurological superstars from MIT and CalTech who already have their noses to the grindstone for Zuckerberg’s Facebook as they work diligently to discover ways and means of mimicking the vicissitudes of the human brain with hardware and software.
Under the obsessive guidance of its CEO, Ginni Rometty, IBM has long explored the possibility of creating artificial human brains. Google, who seem to be turning into the New York Yankees of technocracy, recently hired a brilliant A.I. pioneer in Geoff Hinton, before swallowing up yet another artificial intelligence startup, DeepMind. Meanwhile, Hinton’s old partner, Yann LeCun, who came up with a concept called “deep learning” has gone to Facebook and things become more and more like a greed-driven soap opera.
Now here’s where it gets confusing, but, clearly, you can’t have gossip—even in the rare big-headed air of Palo Alto—without naming a bunch of names. But, in a nutshell, Vicarious is moving to separate itself from the other players by focusing on the brain’s neo-cortex: the section of one’s brain dedicated to high-level cognitive functions like languages and spatial reasoning. Another Vicarious co-founder, Dileep George, built up, then sold, a similar neo-cortex specialization, Numenta, which became Grok, along with Palm’s Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky in 2005.
The idea of constructing a functional version of the full neo-cortex sounds impossible to a second-rate mind like mine. It is a certainly a gargantuan task. Still, as old Granny Bagg used to say, “Baby steps, innit?”
Naturally, Grok and Vicarious have their own plans. Grok already sells an ‘IT infrastructure monitoring service.’ Meanwhile, Vicarious focuses on creating system recognition images. Indeed, you may recall their announcement of the invention of a new tool that solved CAPTCHAS (those strings of letters you have to enter into web applications to prove you’re human). The rest is all Ashton Kutcher running his mouth.
Before you call your broker, please take note that this is a second funding ring-around-the-roses for Vicarious. First dibs go to the venture capital group, Formation 8. Further to that, its first $15m fundraiser included participation from Facebook and Asana’s co-founder Dustin Moskovitz; former Facebook CTO and Quora founder Adam D’Angelo; PayPal and Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel; and Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale. In the long run, this thing looks solid, but as a small investor, your patience may not be virtuous, although there’ll be crumbs to collect off the table.