Fei-Fei Li is a big deal in the world of AI. As the director of the Artificial Intelligence and Vision labs at Stanford University, she oversaw the creation of ImageNet, a vast database of images designed to accelerate the development of AI that can “see.” And, well, it worked, helping to drive the creation of deep learning systems that can recognize objects, animals, people, and even entire scenes in photos—technology that has become commonplace on the world’s biggest photo-sharing sites. Now, Fei-Fei will help run a brand new AI group inside Google, a move that reflects just how aggressively the world’s biggest tech companies are remaking themselves around this breed of artificial intelligence.
Alongside a former Stanford researcher—Jia Li, who more recently ran research for the social networking service Snapchat—the China-born Fei-Fei will lead a team inside Google’s cloud computing operation, building online services that any coder or company can use to build their own AI. This new Cloud Machine Learning Group is the latest example of AI not only re-shaping the technology that Google uses, but also changing how the company organizes and operates its business.
Google is not alone in this rapid re-orientation. Amazon is building a similar group cloud computing group for AI. Facebook and Twitter have created internal groups akin to Google Brain, the team responsible for infusing the search giant’s own tech with AI. And in recent weeks, Microsoft reorganized much of its operation around its existing machine learning work, creating a new AI and research group under executive vice president Harry Shum, who began his career as a computer vision researcher.
Oren Etzioni, CEO of the not-for-profit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, says that these changes are partly about marketing—efforts to ride the AI hype wave. Google, for example, is focusing public attention on Fei-Fei’s new group because that’s good for the company’s cloud computing business. But Etzioni says this is also part of very real shift inside these companies, with AI poised to play an increasingly large role in our future. “This isn’t just window dressing,” he says.
The New Cloud
Fei-Fei’s group is an effort to solidify Google’s position on a new front in the AI wars. The company is challenging rivals like Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM in building cloud computing services specifically designed for artificial intelligence work. This includes services not just for image recognition, but speech recognition, machine-driven translation, natural language understanding, and more.
Cloud computing doesn’t always get the same attention as consumer apps and phones, but it could come to dominate the balance sheet at these giant companies. Even Amazon and Google, known for their consumer-oriented services, believe that cloud computing could eventually become their primary source of revenue. And in the years to come, AI services will play right into the trend, providing tools that allow of a world of businesses to build machine learning services they couldn’t build on their own. Iddo Gino, CEO of RapidAPI, a company that helps businesses use such services, says they have already reached thousands of developers, with image recognition services leading the way.
When it announced Fei-Fei’s appointment last week, Google unveiled new versions of cloud services that offer image and speech recognition as well as machine-driven translation. And the company said it will soon offer a service that allows others to access to vast farms of GPU processors, the chips that are essential to running deep neural networks. This came just weeks after Amazon hired a notable Carnegie Mellon researcher to run its own cloud computing group for AI—and just a day after Microsoft formally unveiled new services for building “chatbots” and announced a deal to provide GPU services to OpenAI, the AI lab established by Tesla founder Elon Musk and Y Combinator president Sam Altman.
The New Microsoft
Even as they move to provide AI to others, these big internet players are looking to significantly accelerate the progress of artificial intelligence across their own organizations. In late September, Microsoft announced the formation of a new group under Shum called the Microsoft AI and Research Group. Shum will oversee more than 5,000 computer scientists and engineers focused on efforts to push AI into the company’s products, including the Bing search engine, the Cortana digital assistant, and Microsoft’s forays into robotics.
The company had already reorganized its research group to move quickly into new technologies into products. With AI, Shum says, the company aims to move even quicker. In recent months, Microsoft pushed its chatbot work out of research and into live products—though not quite successfully. Still, it’s the path from research to product the company hopes to accelerate in the years to come.
“With AI, we don’t really know what the customer expectation is,” Shum says. By moving research closer to the team that actually builds the products, the company believes it can develop a better understanding of how AI can do things customers truly want.
The New Brains
In similar fashion, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have already formed central AI teams designed to spread artificial intelligence throughout their companies. The Google Brain team began as a project inside the Google X lab under another former Stanford computer science professor, Andrew Ng, now chief scientist at Baidu. The team provides well-known services such as image recognition for Google Photos and speech recognition for Android. But it also works with potentially any group at Google, such as the company’s security teams, which are looking for ways to identify security bugs and malware through machine learning.
Facebook, meanwhile, runs its own AI research lab as well as a Brain-like team known as the Applied Machine Learning Group. Its mission is to push AI across the entire family of Facebook products, and according chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, it’s already working: one in five Facebook engineers now make use of machine learning. Schroepfer calls the tools built by Facebook’s Applied ML group “a big flywheel that has changed everything” inside the company. “When they build a new model or build a new technique, it immediately gets used by thousands of people working on products that serve billions of people,” he says. Twitter has built a similar team, called Cortex, after acquiring several AI startups.
The New Education
The trouble for all of these companies is that finding that talent needed to drive all this AI work can be difficult. Given the deep neural networking has only recently entered the mainstream, only so many Fei-Fei Lis exist to go around. Everyday coders won’t do. Deep neural networking is a very different way of building computer services. Rather than coding software to behave a certain way, engineers coax results from vast amounts of data—more like a coach than a player.
As a result, these big companies are also working to retrain their employees in this new way of doing things. As it revealed last spring, Google is now running internal classes in the art of deep learning, and Facebook offers machine learning instruction to all engineers inside the company alongside a formal program that allows employees to become full-time AI researchers.
Yes, artificial intelligence is all the buzz in the tech industry right now, which can make it feel like a passing fad. But inside Google and Microsoft and Amazon, it’s certainly not. And these companies are intent on pushing it across the rest of the tech world too.
Update: This story has been updated to clarify Fei-Fei Li’s move to Google. She will remain on the faculty at Stanford after joining Google.