FAIR competition? Facebook creates official AI labs in Seattle and Pittsburgh, vying for top talent

Facebook is upgrading the status of its Seattle AI research operation. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

After months of work to beef up its artificial intelligence research teams in Seattle and Pittsburgh, Facebook is acknowledging that those two cities are getting official status as AI labs in their own right.

“Facebook AI Research is opening two new labs in Seattle and Pittsburgh, which will join the existing sites in Menlo Park, New York, Paris, Montreal and Tel Aviv,” Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist, said in a posting on Friday.

LeCun’s statement confirms what sources told GeekWire in March about Facebook’s growing Seattle presence in AI research, as well as rumors we heard back then about the social-media giant’s plans for Pittsburgh.

As we reported in March, University of Washington computer science professor Luke Zettlemoyer is a key hire for Seattle’s newly designated FAIR lab. At the time, Facebook spokesman Ari Entin said Zettlemoyer would report to Menlo Park, but LeCun’s statement suggests that the Seattle operation will have more autonomy going forward.

Two professors from Carnegie Mellon University, Abhinav Gupta and Jessica Hodgins, will be part of the Pittsburgh lab. Gupta specializes in computer vision. Hodgins focuses on computer graphics, animation and robotics, with an emphasis on analyzing human motion.

All three professors will retain part-time positions at their universities, LeCun said.

Back in March, Entin said Facebook plans to expand its AI research staff even further in Seattle. Referring to Zettlemoyer, he said, “Luke isn’t a single hire and we’re done.”

Some worry that Facebook’s recruitment campaign will strain what’s already a highly competitive market for AI experts in Seattle — particularly when it comes to training the next generation of researchers.

Zettlemoyer, for example, was recruited from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, where he led the AllenNLP natural language processing project.

After his departure, AI2 has continued to hire high-profile AI specialists, including Amazon Alexa team leader Doug Raymond as well as UW professors Noah Smith and Yejin Choi — who, like Zettlemoyer, are experts in natural language processing, or NLP.

AI2’s creator, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, recently committed $125 million to Project Alexandria, the institute’s effort to develop AI agents with more common sense. As an added inducement, AI2 is making allowances for researchers to keep their university posts and collaborate with commercial AI ventures.

Despite the added resources and wide leeway, it’s getting tougher to hold onto AI talent — due in part to Facebook’s recruitment drive.

“What are the ethics of a major corporation suddenly going after the entire NLP faculty in a computer science department? I believe their original offers had the faculty members spending 80 percent of their time at Facebook, which would not allow them time to carry out their educational responsibilities at UW,” AI2’s chief executive officer, Oren Etzioni, told GeekWire in an email.

“Has Facebook’s motto evolved into: ‘Move fast, and break academia’?” he asked.

 A New York Times report on Facebook’s AI recruiting campaign quoted UW computer science professor Dan Weld as also voicing concern about Facebook’s drive. “It is worrisome that they are eating the seed corn,” Weld said. “If we lose all our faculty, it will be hard to keep preparing the next generation of researchers.”

In his Facebook posting, LeCun took issue with the criticism. He noted that many FAIR researchers spend some of their time at universities, and that FAIR labs host resident graduate students as well.

“This new modus operandi is redefining the relationship between academic research and industry research,” LeCun said. He said The New York Times’ report “erroneously qualifies this evolution as a ‘brain drain’ from academia.”

“Facebook is careful not to deplete universities from their best faculty, by making it easy to maintain sizeable research and teaching activities in their academic labs,” LeCun wrote. “In fact, making these part-time splits possible is precisely the reason why we have been establishing labs in New York, Paris, Montreal, Tel Aviv, and now Seattle and Pittsburgh. It is the proximity to leading universities with talented faculty and the existence of a local talent pool that attract us.”