Apple, Google and Facebook are investing in artificial intelligence: What is their plan and who are other key players?

Christina Mercer
Christina Mercer

Christina Mercer

After graduating from the University of Nottingham reading philosophy and theology in 2013, Christina was appointed marketing executive at a tech start-up specialising in mobile apps. She has a keen interest in the mobile platform and innovative tech.

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Updated 5 April 2016: Facebook's iOS app now uses AI to narrate photos for the blind. Read on to find out more about this.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact path that AI will take, but with companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft making huge strides and Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk calling for AI to be regulated and monitored, it is definitely a hotly debated topic.

Here are 10 tech giants that are investing in artificial intelligence...

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© iStock/Luchezar

Tech giants investing in AI: Facebook

According to The Next Web, Facebook is helping blind people 'see' photos by using artificial intelligence to narrate them via its iOS app. By using neural networks, the Facebook app will generate a description for every photo e.g. 'three women smiling with champagne'.

In addition, Facebook is reportedly using artificial intelligence to produce detailed maps illustrating population density and the access to internet across the globe. This should help Facebook bring internet to parts of the world that are without access. Facebook has analysed 20 countries and 21.6 million square kilometres amounting to 350TB of data.

Facebook is also reported to be creating deep learning AI which aims to find out what matters to Facebook users. Facebook is definitely not new to the AI game. In 2010 it introduced facial recognition technology that could identify people in posted photos, and in 2013 Mark Zuckerberg dedicated a lab to AI research. Zuckerberg also recruited deep learning expert Yann LeCun to set up the AI headquarters. Facebook says its plan for AI is to personalise what matters to each user, populating timelines with things they genuinely care about rather than people and posts they'd prefer not to see.

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© iStock/Frazon1

Tech giants investing in AI: Apple

This week Apple has bought artificial intelligence startup Emotient and while it's not completely clear what Apple's plans are, reports suggest that the acquisition will centre on facial recognition technology and customers reaction to ads.

In October, Apple acquired UK-based AI company Vocal IQ. It is reported that Apple aims to develop Siri further and use Vocal IQ's speech AI software. In 2014 Vocal IQ produced voice-control technology for General Motors, allowing users to turn on and off certain functions within the car via voice command - so its potential for Internet of Things based AI is high.

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© SpaceX

Tech giants investing in AI: Elon Musk

Elon Musk is joining forces with other tech giants such as Amazon Web Service, LinkedIn and PayPal to form open source AI. This openAI nonprofit project aims to responsibly develop artificial intelligence that maximises its benefits on mankind.

After calling uncontrolled artificial intelligence an existential threat, Elon Musk has committed to invest $10 million into safe AI research. Along with Musk, household names such as Stephen Hawking has also warned of the risks associated with the current rate of AI development.

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© Google

Tech giants investing in AI: Google

Back in 2014 Google bought artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for a huge $400 million (£263 million), making it one of the largest tech acquisitions to date. Google focuses its AI investment on machine learning and has announced this week that its machine learning system TensorFlow will be available free for everyone. Machine learning can be found in image and speech recognition technology and translation applications. It mimics the way the human brain works and recognises patterns.

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© Microsoft

Tech giants investing in AI: Microsoft

Microsoft's project Oxford aims to understand its users with face, emotion and speech application program interfaces (APIs). Microsoft announced at Future Decoded last week that developers now have access to an emotion detection service that can assign an emotion to a person depending on their facial expression. This kind of facial recognition allows photos to be edited depending on the feelings expressed in them.

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© IBM

Tech giants investing in AI: IBM

Famed for its Watson computer (a computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language), IBM aims to use computers to extract meaning from photos, videos, text and speech. In 2011 Watson won the US quiz show Jeopardy, outperforming his human counterparts. What's more, IBM have teamed up with graphics processor Nvidia, which reportedly provides Watson with a response rate that is 1.7 times faster than before.  IBM is also developing a teaching assistant app that will plan lessons based on approved material. Trials for this should begin next year in New York.

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© Skype

Tech giants investing in AI: Skype

Microsoft-owned Skype offers real-time language translations in six languages with more to come soon. This translation system will recognise users speech and convert it into translated text as you speak.

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© MetaMind

Tech giants investing in AI: Salesforce

In April 2016, Salesforce acquired MetaMind, an AI startup specialising in deep learning. Salesforce CEO Richard Socher stated in a blogpost:

"With MetaMind and Salesforce coming together, we'll be able to offer customers real AI solutions with breakthrough capabilities that further automate and personalise customer support, marketing automation, and many other business processes." 

Previously, MetaMind had developed a unique system that runs on a short-term memory to answer questions that are in natural language. For example, when given a large piece of text, a MetaMind system should be able to answer questions like 'what is the overall sentiment?'

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© Shell

Tech giants investing in AI: Shell

While not a traditional 'tech' company, Shell is set to launch a virtual assistant to answer online customers questions around the clock.

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