Facebook founder, wife give UMass $5.5M for disease research using artificial intelligence

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Andrew McCallum, left, with Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has provided the university’s Center for Data Science a $5.5 million grant to fund a partnership, led by McCallum, to use artificial intelligence to create a navigable map of scientific knowledge. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

AMHERST — Backed by $5.5 million from the founder of Facebook and his wife, the University of Massachusetts Amherst hopes the use of artificial intelligence will one day lead to faster breakthroughs in disease research.

The grant from the philanthropic organization created by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan — the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — will fund a partnership with UMass to use artificial intelligence to create a navigable map to make scientific knowledge more accessible.

The Computable Knowledge project will be led by professor Andrew McCallum, the director of the university’s Center for Data Science and a pre-eminent statistical machine-learning researcher. The project is meant to help scientists use artificial intelligence to make connections between scientific articles both new and old.

“We believe the result will be a first-of-its-kind guide for every scientist, just as map apps are now indispensable tools for navigating the physical world,” McCallum said in a statement. “We hope our results will help solve the mounting problem of scientific knowledge complexity, democratize scientific knowledge, and put powerful reasoning in the hands of individual scientists.”

The partnership is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s first with UMass, and McCallum said he expects it will result in the hiring of software engineers in western Massachusetts. In addition, it will support related student research in the Center for Data Science, and will create internships for UMass Amherst students at the initiative’s other projects.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is itself putting together a team of scientists to collaborate with UMass on the project. The tool, once finished, will be accessible to scientists for free through the initiative’s artificial intelligence search platform Meta.

“The biomedical research landscape is growing and changing daily, as researchers publish their findings in journals around the world,” Chan wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday. “It is a daunting amount of information for any scientist to take in, let alone learn from and build upon. If we hope to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime, we must help scientists find new ways to explore, navigate, and reason across research.”

The idea, Chan wrote, is to give scientists a visual tool to search and discover new findings, and to see how they fit into the broader scientific context of what is known. “We are very pleased CZI selected UMass Amherst to play a major role in this groundbreaking initiative that will give scientists tremendous power to share their research around the world,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.