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Facebook already has a significant presence in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Facebook has made a high-profile hire as part of a plan to expand its AI research team in Seattle — adding to an already-fierce competition for talent in the artificial intelligence field.

The social network has signed up Luke Zettlemoyer, a computer science professor at the University of Washington who was most recently a senior research manager at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2.

Zettlemoyer is considered a rising star in the AI field, and was among the researchers featured last November in a New York Times article about the bidding war for artificial intelligence talent. He left AI2 last week and began at Facebook this week. His move comes as the Allen Institute, created by Paul Allen, looks to ramp up its own hiring in a tight market for AI talent with help from an additional $125 million in funding from the Microsoft co-founder.

Facebook spokesman Ari Entin said Zettlemoyer will be working with the company’s Seattle-based computational photography team, which was formed in 2015 and is led by Microsoft veteran Rick Szeliski. But Entin added that Zettlemoyer will report to Menlo Park, Calif., under the broader aegis of Facebook AI Research, also known as FAIR.

Luke Zettlemoyer
AI researcher Luke Zettlemoyer (UW Photo)

Zettlemoyer, who led the AllenNLP natural language processing project as part of his AI2 work, is expected to continue working part-time as a UW professor while at Facebook. In November’s New York Times article, Zettlemoyer cited his desire to continue teaching as a reason for turning down an earlier job offer from Google.

His hiring by Facebook is part of a broader initiative targeting AI as a “very significant investment area,” Entin told GeekWire.

“We’re going to continue to recruit and build up our presence in Seattle,” he said. “Luke isn’t a single hire and we’re done.”

Facebook’s recruiting campaign sparked speculation in Seattle’s AI research community that the company would soon open full-scale FAIR labs in Seattle, but Enten played down that idea. “We have FAIR representation in that office, but it’s not a full-scale lab like Montreal, Paris, NY or Menlo Park,” he said in an email.

For what it’s worth, Facebook is looking for research interns to work with FAIR in Seattle as well in Menlo Park and New York — which serves as another indication that Facebook is raising Seattle’s profile in AI research.

Ed Lazowska, a leading computer science professor at the University of Washington, said Facebook’s hiring campaign is “one of a number of signs of Seattle’s emergence as a center of excellence in AI — specifically in machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, robotics, and AR/VR.”

“We have in the past attracted many companies here because of the region’s deep expertise in infrastructure engineering — in building web-scale systems,” Lazowska told GeekWire in an email. “We’re beginning to see that happening in AI, another key technology for the future.”

Facebook already has a significant presence in the Seattle area. Just this month, executives showed off the company’s new 150,000-square-foot Seattle office on Westlake Avenue, which will eventually house 900 employees. When you add in Facebook’s nearby engineering center, that provides enough capacity for close to 3,000 workers in Seattle’s core.

Facebook’s VR company, Oculus, has a separate operation in Redmond, Wash.

And when it comes to Seattle AI research, Facebook is far from alone: Initiatives in artificial intelligence are among the top priorities for local powerhouses Amazon and Microsoft. Last year, Google’s AI investment arm led a $10.5 million funding round for Seattle-based Algorithmia.

AI2, which was created by Allen five years ago, has contributed to Seattle’s standing by spawning initiatives such as the Semantic Scholar search engine as well as spin-outs such as Kitt.ai (which was bought by Baidu last year) and Xnor.ai. The institute has an increasingly active incubator program for AI startups.

Last month, Allen committed $125 million to fund a new initiative at AI2 called Project Alexandria, which aims to foster “common-sense AI.” With the additional funding, AI2 is planning a significant increase in its hiring of artificial intelligence researchers.

There could be a downside to a recruiting campaign that targets institutions such as AI2 and the University of Washington’s highly regarded Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. Scooping up professors and senior researchers en masse could make it tougher to train the next generation of AI developers.

Another potential downside has to do with Facebook’s image problem, highlighted by a scandal over the disastrous mishandling of personal data that was gleaned from the social network’s users. It may be a bit tougher to recruit talent when lawmakers are calling for hearings and the company’s stock is falling.

“Personally, I question whether I would be interested in working for Facebook, given what we’ve learned to date,” AI2’s CEO, Oren Etzioni, told GeekWire.

The potential upside is that all the added attention could strengthen the Seattle area’s pull as a magnet for AI talent. On that score, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., delivered a commercial message at least as enticing as Facebook’s job listings this week during an AI conference in Washington, D.C.

“I can tell you right now, if you have any kind of AI education, please head to Seattle, Washington,” she said. “The employers there are telling me it’s a very, very, very competitive field right now for anybody who has any expertise here, and it’s just going to grow.”

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