Major players sink millions into AI-focused firms

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Major players sink millions into AI-focused firms

Samsung Electronics and Wipro’s venture arms have made strategic investments into an artificial intelligence start-up named Vicarious, as established companies seek to add machine-learning technology to their products.

The financings, made in the spring, are both for amounts in the millions of dollars, although they were less than $20 million apiece, Vicarious co-founder Scott Phoenix said in an interview. In November, Swiss robotics giant ABB Limited made a strategic investment of less than $10 million into Vicarious as part of a $12 million round.

Vicarious was founded in 2010 to develop AI technology designed to give robots and computers some of the intuitive and imaginative capacities of humans. In November 2013, the company disclosed it had developed visual sensing algorithms that could reliably solve CAPTCHAs, the web security images used to distinguish people from robots.

The investors in Vicarious read like a who’s who of technology executives, including Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff and Box CEO Aaron Levie.

Vicarious’s partnerships with companies such as ABB, Samsung and Wipro are aimed at applying its research into products and learning how to better develop technology. As part of the investments, each company has assigned people to work directly with Vicarious on various projects, Phoenix said.

“Our technology is a very long-term bet, and we want to interface with the other long-term bets being made by big companies,” Phoenix said. “To do that, we need to get to see their road map.”

Wipro plans to use Vicarious’s AI technology to look at crumpled or ripped paper and identify the text on it, Phoenix said. Samsung is looking to add AI technology to its smart devices initiative, which includes phones, televisions and cars. ABB has already co-developed a robot with Vicarious, Phoenix said, and the companies are working together to see how they can embed advanced AI sensing, movement and problem-solving capabilities into prototypes.

The investments into Vicarious are the latest example of big companies partnering with or investing in AI start-ups.

ABB rival Fanuc announced an alliance with Preferred Networks in June to add greater capabilities to its machines.

Preferred Networks has also partnered with Toyota Motor, and Panasonic International Business Machines said in July that it joined up with top AI researchers at the University of Montreal to expand the capabilities of its Watson product suite.

JPMorgan Chase’s hedge fund business is working with AI start-up Sentient Technologies to develop investments strategies based on AI. Bloomberg

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