Facebook insists it’s not raiding academia through its research partnerships with top universities

Chief AI Scientist for Facebook AI Research Yann LeCun. (Facebook Photo)

Facebook has in recent months amped up a push to bring in professors from top-notch universities to work on long-term artificial intelligence research part time, but the company says it views universities as partners rather than competitors to poach top talent from.

In an interview with reporters, Chief AI Scientist of Facebook AI Research Yann LeCun gave new details about this “dual affiliation” program that lets professors do research for both Facebook and their universities. The program, most recently expanded to the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Oxford University in the U.K., has come under fire for fear of “brain drain” among top research institutions. That is far from the case argues LeCun, who pointed out that Facebook only brings in one or two people from each school so as not to disrupt the work of their departments.

Luke Zettlemoyer. (Facebook Photo)

“We are careful; we don’t hire five people from the same university,” LeCun said. “We don’t hire too many people full time. We allow them to retain meaningful research opportunities, and we’re not too possessive about IP so that the boundary between the two is not too impermeable.”

Tech companies hiring academics on a part-time basis has become more common in recent years. Facebook has been doing it for several years to bolster FAIR, first setting up labs in New York and its hometown of Menlo Park, Calif. more than four years ago. With the newest additions, Facebook now has AI labs in Paris, Tel Aviv, Seattle, Pittsburgh and London.

In March, GeekWire reported that Luke Zettlemoyer, a computer science professor at the University of Washington who was most recently a senior research manager at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, was joining Facebook as part of the FAIR lab in Seattle. His work focuses on “computational semantics, including deep learning methods for multilingual language understanding,” according to Facebook.

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.

Facebook is providing millions in funding to the schools it is working with, which the company says will allow professors to spend their time on research and working with students rather than trying to raise money for their projects. Facebook also plans to support PhD students conducting research with FAIR and their professors.

FAIR is separate from the rest of the company in a lot of ways. LeCun says the department is focused on long-term research and applications of technology, beyond ways to enhance company products. The company is more public about its work in this area than it is some of its other projects, and Facebook doesn’t try to restrict its findings.

“Facebook is not interested in stopping others for using the technology we develop,” LeCun said. “In fact it has that as an advertised policy, patents that are filed by Facebook are never for stopping other people from using it, so that makes it easy to collaborate.”