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UW Computer Science Chair Hank Levy speaks at the TechAliance AI Policy Matters Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

About eight years ago, leaders of the University of Washington’s computer science department decided to zero in on artificial intelligence. The goal was to recruit machine learning and AI “superstars” to lead the department into this new frontier of technology, according to UW Computer Science Chair Hank Levy.

The challenge? Competing for experts with bigger names in academia, like Stanford and MIT.

But the University of Washington had an asset those institutions didn’t: Jeff Bezos in its backyard.

“So we thought, what the hell? We’ll send Jeff an email,” Levy said Thursday, speaking at the Technlogy Alliance’s AI Policy Matters Summit in Seattle. The event brought together industry experts, scholars, and elected officials to discuss the state of AI and machine learning and recommend policies to govern the new technology.

UW was trying to recruit the married duo Carlos Guestrin and Emily Fox from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, as well as other tech experts.

Within 24 hours, Bezos responded with two $1 million professorship endowments for Fox and Guestrin. Bezos also stepped in to charm the scholars. He spent a half-hour with them in-person, which Levy said helped seal the deal.

“Whether you like Jeff or not, he’s very funny, he has the biggest laugh in the world, and he’s incredibly impressive,” Levy said. “It had an impact.”

That was the start of a new era for UW’s computer science department, Levy said. The department made the front page of the New York Times Sunday business section for its AI efforts in 2012. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $40 million to create a new computer science department in his name, kicking off several multimillion-dollar rounds of donations from tech companies and leaders. And the new Paul G. Allen school allowed UW to triple its number of computer science majors.

“This was the beginning of propelling our department to being one of the very best and best-known in the country,” Levy said.

The recruiting efforts also paid unexpected dividends to Apple. Despite his Amazon endowment, the startup that Guestrin spun out of UW was eventually acquired by Apple for $200 million in 2016.

“This was the biggest exit out of the department,” Levy said. “It was a really big deal. One of the reasons that it’s a big deal is Apple did not have much presence in the region at that point.”

Apple is now planning to grow to 2,000 employees at its new Seattle campus in Amazon’s backyard. Guestrin certainly won’t be the last superstar the two tech titans compete over.

The success of Guestrin’s startup, Turi, benefited UW with more than just prestige. On the eve of the Apple acquisition, Turi gave the UW computer science department a $1 million professor endowment, like the ones Amazon provided to lure Guestrin and Fox.

“Remember it was Jeff’s and Amazon’s professorships who helped us to recruit Carlos and Emily and now this company, as it was being acquired by Apple, gave us $1 million to create and another professor in AI, to help us hire the next person in this area,” Levy said. “So that was an incredible thing that they did for us.”

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