For the first time since gifting Harvard University $500 million to launch a new research institute, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan visited the school Thursday to talk about their ambitious goal to study the basis of intelligence.
The couple, who originally met at Harvard, were in Boston to celebrate the launch of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence, which will focus on the brain and AI systems — and what scientists don’t know about both.
When asked which questions the institute might be able to answer over the next 10 years, Zuckerberg was quick to respond: “What is the mathematical basis of intelligence?”
“That’s one that I’m interested in,” the 38-year old chief executive of Meta, formerly Facebook, said during a sit-down interview with the Globe. (Zuckerberg, known for wearing gray T-shirts, was sporting a navy blue suit and red tie.)
“Right now, machine learning is a pretty empirical field, in the sense that you build these models and they work ... but no one actually really understands, mathematically, how they work or why they work,” he said.
Zuckerberg and Chan believe human and artificial intelligence are “intimately interconnected,” and that the next wave of innovation requires a better understanding of how the brain works. Chan said there’s still a “huge divide” when it comes to researching these fields; the hope is that the Kempner Institute will allow students and faculty to study those areas more closely.
“You get to see new insights when you bring different disciplines together,” said Chan, 37, who grew up in Quincy and graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a degree in biology.
The Kempner Institute was funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropy the couple founded in 2015. They pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to causes like improving education and eradicating diseases. (CZI and Meta are separate organizations, and the Kempner Institute is run by Harvard.)
The research center will be located at Harvard’s new 500,000-square-foot Science and Engineering Complex in Allston and is named after Zuckerberg’s mother, Karen Kempner, and her parents, Sidney and Gertrude Kempner. Harvard was a natural choice for the institute, Chan said, given its history of being strong in neurobiology.
Zuckerberg’s grandmother joined him and Chan at Harvard on Thursday, surprising the Facebook founder by asking questions, during a student presentation earlier in the day, about complex science, like the density of convolutions in the brain.
“‘Have you been studying?’” Zuckerberg said he asked his grandmother. “That was a real highlight for me.”
Chan and Zuckerberg spoke at an afternoon symposium in Harvard’s SEC building, as did Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, Kempner Institute co-directors Bernardo Sabatini and Sham Kakade, and several other major figures in technology and artificial intelligence.
The event began with a performance in which two people danced with robots to “AI-enhanced” music that was composed in real-time based on their movements. Several Harvard faculty members participated in panel discussions, and tech moguls like Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates pre-recorded remarks about the institute. After the event, guests enjoyed a wall of donuts and sparkling wine in champagne flutes.
Zuckerberg told the Globe that research coming out of the Kempner Institute should help researchers build better AI systems.
“Once you understand how something is supposed to work, then when it’s not working the way it’s supposed to, you can fix it a little more easily,” he said.
Sabatini, one of the institute’s codirectors, said developing new mathematical theories that explain how the brain works could help researchers understand conditions like schizophrenia and autism. He also said he hopes machines can one day interface directly with the human brain, acting like a sort of prosthetic for the mind.
“Of course, this kind of technology has the potential for abuse,” he said, adding that the institute will host debates and invite outsiders to weigh in on ethics.
It is likely that the research center’s findings will be relevant to Big Tech in the future, though Chan and Zuckerberg said there is not a focus on spinning out companies or commercializing research at the Kempner.
“The way that the field works is that the applications are so broad that anything that gets discovered will find its way into a wide variety of commercial applications,” Zuckerberg said.
Chan and Zuckerberg’s $500 million gift to Harvard will support the new institute for the next 15 years, allowing it to hire 10 new faculty members and purchase computing equipment, among other things. The center was first announced in December, as part of a newly defined vision for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which in 2016 laid out a goal to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.
“We hope that by funding a lot of interesting research, and building some tools over the long term, that we can empower scientists to make that progress,” Zuckerberg said Thursday.
Based on what CZI learned in its first five years, Chan and Zuckerberg announced last December a more precise goal: to better measure human biology over the next decade. That vision spans several efforts, such as building new software tools and launching research centers like the Kempner Institute.
“When Mark and Priscilla started their science philanthropy, they started a bunch of separate experiments,” said Stephen Quake, the head of science at CZI, in an interview. “They’ve been very happy with the results of all the experiments and sort of doubled down.”
Chan said the Kempner Institute will also focus on diversity, a major issue in the field of AI, by investing in “diverse datasets, diverse viewpoints, and diverse talent.” It’s important to her that all students and faculty members are able to access the institute’s resources, from undergrads to post-docs, she said.
Chan teared up during her speech while talking about her family’s connection to Harvard.
“My family was always in Harvard’s backyard, but I knew that most students didn’t look like us,” she said. Her parents came to the US as refugees from Vietnam and worked 18-hour days at the family restaurant, she said.
“That’s the only part that will make me cry,” she said.
“Talking about machine learning doesn’t make you cry?” Zuckerberg joked.
During the interview with the Globe, Zuckerberg and Chan said they come back to the area every 12 to 18 months and take note of how much the area has changed since their college days.
“We’re like, ‘where did the CVS go? Poke... in Boston?” Chan said, laughing. “We basically just go through disbelief and feel older and older every time we come back.”