Business

Chan Zuckerberg philanthropy taps UMass Amherst to create AI scientific research tool

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/File 2016
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

A philanthropy started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan has awarded a $5.5 million grant to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Data Science to create a free tool that would make millions of published scientific and medical findings easily accessible to researchers worldwide.

The project, called Computable Knowledge, would use a branch of artificial intelligence known as knowledge representation and reasoning to create a navigable map of scientific findings from millions of new and historical research articles. The project aims to help scientists stay current on new research and to make it easier to find previously unknown connections between findings in genetics, diseases, drugs, and treatments.

Using AI, the initiative promises to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery by removing the bottleneck created by the millions of peer review papers published every year. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also building a team of AI scientists to collaborate on the project.

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For UMass, it is a chance to showcase its work in artificial intelligence by “revolutionizing science,” said Andrew McCallum, director of the Center for Data Science, who will head the partnership.

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“AI was getting to the point that it was ripe to help [by using] automated reasoning and making predictions about relations [in scientific findings] that are not directly observed, but for which we have peripheral evidence,” McCallum said, comparing the first-of-its-kind project to “how map apps are now indispensable tools for navigating the physical world.”

The service, which is expected to take several years to complete, will be accessible through Meta, an AI search tool acquired by the Chan Zuckerberg initiative a year ago. McCallum said that work has already begun and that the first version of the tool could be released within a year.

In a statement posted on her Facebook page, Chan said the tool will allow scientists “to explore research in a highly visual way.”

“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,” she wrote.

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The $5.5 million investment, the organization’s first donation and partnership with the university, is expected to result in the hiring of software engineers in Western Massachusetts to work on the project, as well as support the research of several graduate and PhD students, and postdoctoral researchers at the Center for Data Science, McCallum said.

In the statement Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker praised the selection of UMass Amherst to “play a major role in this groundbreaking initiative that will give scientists tremendous power to share their research around the world.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.