Zuckerberg, Musk and Kutcher invest in artificial intelligence startup

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are putting some of their own money into a hot new artificial intelligence start-up. And so is Ashton Kutcher.

That’s the word in the Wall Street Journal, which reported Friday that the Facebook and Tesla CEOs are joining in a $40 million funding round for Vicarious, a secretive Silicon Valley start-up that’s working on developing computer code that simulates the human cortex. Kutcher, the actor who portrayed Steve Jobs in a recent film, is also investing.

Artificial intelligence is hot in Silicon Valley these days. Google, Facebook and plenty of other companies are investing a lot of resources in developing “deep learning” algorithms that can do a better job of identifying images, answering questions and anticipating what their users want or need.

In fact, Google recently spent a reported $400 million to buy Deep Mind, another AI start-up based in London that Facebook had reportedly been eyeing. Both companies have hired some of the biggest academic names in AI research, from Yann LeCun (who went to Facebook last December) to Google’s Andrew Ng and Ray Kurzweil.

But this is a personal investment by Zuckerberg, according to the Journal, which notes that Vicarious is also backed by the likes of Peter Thiel, Dustin Moskovitz and others.

Vicarious says on its website that it’s working on “developing machine learning software based on the computational principles of the human brain. Our first technology is a visual perception system that interprets the contents of photographs and videos in a manner similar to humans.”

Among other things, the company says it’s developed software that can pass the “Captcha” test – those little boxes on some websites that ask you to read a series of irregular numerals and characters, to prove you’re human. In an article last month, the Journal also reported that Vicarious is working on software that can understand and “imagine” what an object looks like – for example, by drawing crude digital renderings of cows.

(Photo of Mark Zuckerberg by Nhat Meyer/Mercury News)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (350 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.