Billionaire Paul Allen may well be one of the most fascinating people in tech right now. At a time when many high society folks are stubbornly sitting on their riches, Allen's throwing money left and right to advance the frontiers of human technology and society. Allen - who calls himself "Idea Man" - is already using his not-inconsiderable wealth to fund neuroscience, spaceflight, astronomical research,music projects. studies into the history of Rock and Roll, his own sports team...you get the idea. He's a bit of a renaissance man.
Without a doubt, his largest project - the crown jewel of his philanthropy, if you will - is the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which he founded ten years ago. The 60-year-old Microsoft co-founder poured $400 million of his estimated $15.8 billion fortune into the institute's open-source efforts to map the brain and work out which genes are responsible for its function. His latest project is actually sort of related to that.
It involves artificial intelligence.
According to Allen - who spoke to NBC in an interview at the Experience Music Project Museum - the inspiration from this project came from multiple sources. Among them, he cited Project Halo (an undertaking with the end goal of creating interactive textbooks), Watson's 2011 Jeopardy victory, and a number of issues that were raised at the Allen Institute.
"It's a strange kind of race," explained Allen, speaking about the relation between AI and human intelligence. "Can you create an artificial object or entity or something that can perform language before you understand how it's done in the brain? I don't know which horse to bet on. I'm betting on both. Both are fascinating."
The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, based in Seattle, will see University of Washington computer scientist Dr. Oren Etzioni as its head. Etzioni's current position at the University of Washingon has him as both the Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Professor and the Director of the Turing Center. He's a fitting choice; his research is focused on solving the most fundamental problems with AI.,
"Oren is exceptionally talented," said Allen in a press release, "and he shares my vision and enthusiasm for the exciting possibilities in the field of AI, including opportunities to help computers acquire knowledge and reason. I've been very encouraged by the tremendous strides we've made in brain research at the Allen Institute for Brain Science over the past decade. With Oren's leadership, we will apply that same model to explore the critical questions in AI today."
"Oren has a gift for imagining possibilities, which is key when you are working in these uncharted areas," added Allen Jones, CEO of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. "I'm excited to see another Paul Allen institute take off, and look forward to finding ways for the Institute for Brain Science to collaborate with this one down the road."
Allen founded Microsoft alongside Bill Gates in 1975, and remained with the organization until being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1982. Although his condition was successfully treated, Allen did not return to Microsoft, and officially resigned from the Microsoft Board of Directors in November 2000. Instead, Allen began using the fortune he'd amassed from his time at Microsoft to advance science and technology through the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which awards an estimated $30 million in grants annually. His contributions include the Experience Music Project, The Seattle Cinema Theatre, The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, The Flying Heritage Collection, the Allen Telescope Array; and, of course, the AI institute and Brain institute.