Apple’s Hottest New Hires May Be Animal Researchers – Here’s Why

Tim Cook Apple Credit: James Martin/CNET
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Technology giants raiding universities to hire top-tier researchers isn’t really unexpected. But recently, companies like Apple are tapping an unlikely source for new talent: animal research labs.

Firms such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter have hired a slew of specialized animal researchers and neuroscientists from various universities across the globe over the past few years, according to a Bloomberg report.

At a glance, this may seem pretty weird. But when you understand what those researchers are studying (and why), it all starts to make sense.

Animal Research and Artificial Intelligence

To illustrate how animals can aid researchers in the technology sphere, Bloomberg took a look at a mouse named Jaguar. The genetically altered mouse lives at the Rowland Institute at Harvard.

Researchers there, like neuroscientist Mackenzie Mathis, have trained Jaguar to play video games using a specialized rig. In one game, the mouse uses his right paw to operate a joystick and navigate a virtual environment. During the entire process, the researchers track Jaguar’s brain function.

While this field of study can garner valuable information about brain function in mice, Mathis and a growing number of other specialized animal researchers are actually focused on artificial intelligence.

By figuring out how mice learn, Mathis and other neuroscientists like her could gain insights about how to teach computers. Studying how a mouse reacts to unexpected situations in a video game, for example, could let researchers apply the insights to robots in the future.

Other animal researchers that Bloomberg interviewed are studying songbirds and their ability to intuitively make sounds. According to the publication, analyzing how birds imitate one another could allow researchers to take those lessons and apply them to teaching language skills to a machine.

As you might expect, any kind of research that could bolster machine learning and artificial intelligence is already extremely enticing to technology firms. Going forward, these researchers will likely only become more sought after.

How This Research Can Be Used

Machine learning and AI are still burgeoning fields, but we are on the verge of a complete and total revolution in that sphere.

These types of systems could be applied to a slew of consumer-facing technologies. Advanced machine learning could lead to everything from smarter digital assistants to safer self-driving vehicles — two areas in which Apple has a stake.

Autonomous vehicle systems, for example, could be trained to make much more humanlike decisions by just applying lessons from an animal like a zebra fish.

And animal research could be applied in ways that you may not expect. Birdsong researchers, for example, are reportedly one of the “hottest hires” in AI fields, Bloomberg noted.

That’s because sound-recognition systems are critical for voice processing. In other words, the ability for a digital assistant like Siri to understand your verbal commands.

The Rowland Institute’s Jennifer Li put it succinctly: By borrowing from nature, researchers in AI could create more advanced and intelligent systems a lot quicker than they would otherwise.

“If you were to use biology, you can essentially cheat and look at what the solution should be without having to reinvent the wheel,” Li told Bloomberg.

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