Univ. of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce joins AI2’s board to build on Paul Allen’s legacy

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce has joined the board of directors for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, forging an even closer connection between two of Seattle’s premier research institutions.

The addition, which took effect Jan. 1, leverages existing ties between UW and the legacy of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who created AI2 in 2014. The entrepreneur and philanthropist, who passed away in 2018, is memorialized by UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science Engineering.

AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni said Cauce and Microsoft Healthcare corporate VP Peter Lee, who joined the board in 2018 not long before Allen’s death, will set the stage for a new phase in the institute’s growth.

“We have two people who, between them, have a deep and broad knowledge of research, and a real understanding of how to scale research organizations, how to make them successful over the long term,” Etzioni told GeekWire.

“Our goal in growing our board has been to continue to get the best advice and mentoring that we can on how to grow Paul Allen’s legacy, and how to maximize ‘AI for the common good,’ which is our mission,” he said.

Cauce, 64, joined UW as a psychology professor and worked her way up to the university’s top role in 2015. She oversees an institution with 59,000 students, 4,300 faculty members and an annual operating budget of more than $8.25 billion. When it comes to total spending on research and development, UW ranks among the top five U.S. higher education institutions with $1.4 billion in fiscal 2018.

Etzioni pointed out that AI2’s board positions are uncompensated, which means Cauce is providing her expertise primarily for the good of the order. “It really is a huge honor that she’s willing to take the time,” he said.

The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence isn’t quite at UW’s level when it comes to personnel or budget, but the more than 100 researchers on its staff have notched more than their fair share of achievements over the past five years.

AI2 has spawned projects ranging from the Semantic Scholar search engine to an AI-enabled guessing game called Iconary. It’s also spawned a series of successful spin-outs, including Kitt.ai (which was acquired by Baidu in 2017) and Xnor.ai (which was acquired by Apple just a few weeks ago).

Etzioni said one of the more recent priorities for the institute is the AI Fairness project, which aims to use natural language processing, computer vision and engineering to head off biases that may be reflected in AI-based decision-making models.

“We’re still very much ramping that up,” he said.

Cauce and Lee join a board of directors that also includes UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska, Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf and Vulcan Capital’s Steve Hall. AI2’s scientific advisory board provides additional brainpower from the likes of Microsoft Research’s Eric Horvath and MIT’s Aude Oliva.

Etzioni said the advisers and directors put the institute in position for continued growth, while staying true to Paul Allen’s vision of using AI for the common good. “We’re not looking for a replacement for Paul’s vision, because we feel like we are entrusted with that,” he said. “It’s more that we want people to mentor us as we grow, and help us build an enduring and successful research organization. That’s what they have unique perspectives on.”

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