Amazon and the University of Washington will collaborate on a new “Science Hub” funded with an initial $1.9 million investment from the tech giant. The hub will first focus on robotics research and may expand in the future to other areas.
The hub is set up as a collaboration between Amazon Robotics AI and the UW’s college of engineering. Researchers will “tackle complex problems, identified by Amazon and addressed through the UW’s robotics labs,” according to a press release announcing the new initiative.
The hub will support a range of efforts, such as graduate student fellowships and sponsored research projects, said UW computer science professor Joshua Smith, the hub’s inaugural director. Amazon will also support smaller projects lasting one year or so, where ideas often blossom.
Specific areas of research include improving how robots manipulate objects and how robots and humans work together, said Smith, who was recently elected to the 2021 class of Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors. He added that the UW has already put out a call for hub research proposals in such areas. “It’s kind of up to the imagination of the faculty to propose ideas,” he said.
In the future, research at the hub may explore other fields in the overlap between technology, industry and society. That might encompass fields such as natural language processing, which applies computational methods to extract meaning from texts, or areas including logistics and operations research, said Smith.
“There are a lot of possibilities,” added Smith, who is also a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering.
The hub will also engage neighboring academic institutions and the public through events.
The new program is the latest in Amazon’s expanding list of university partnerships. Last fall, Amazon launched a similar science hub at MIT to investigate artificial intelligence and robotics, and a hub at UCLA to explore social issues in artificial intelligence. Amazon also funds artificial intelligence research centers at Columbia University and the University of Southern California, and supports a quantum computing partnership in a building at Caltech.
Amazon has also supported nearby Seattle University in the past, announcing a $3 million contribution in May 2019 to help fund its new Jim and Janet Sinegal Center for Science and Innovation. It also made a significant donation to create an endowed chair to lead its computer science department, after hiring the former chair.
The UW has received a healthy share of Amazon support. In 2012, Amazon established two $1 million endowed professorships in machine learning at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. And in 2016, Amazon provided $10 million in funding for a new computer science building at the UW.
At least nine UW faculty members have been designated Amazon Scholars, which means they spend between 20% and 90% of their time at Amazon.
Computer science professor Siddhartha Srinivasa similarly has dual roles, serving as director of Robotics AI at Amazon. “The scale of Amazon’s fulfillment network provides a rich set of problems in AI and robotics,” he said in the release. Amazon’s robotics initiatives support a variety endeavors, including the development of warehouse robots and the improvement of its new home robot, called Astro.
The new hub will host a roundtable in March to initiate dialogue between UW and Amazon to assess areas of interest. Said Smith: “How do we sync those up and find mutually engaging, exciting projects?”
The new initiative is a “win-win,” added Smith, who anticipates that the hub will have its own space. He is also looking forward to the hub bringing together researchers across the UW for collaborations.
According to a UW spokesperson, there will be no restrictions on scientific publications emerging from the hub, and the UW will own all of the intellectual property. The spokesperson said UW expects most of the software to be open sourced, but that will be “at the discretion” of the faculty member. Amazon Robotics AI principal scientist Michael Wolf will be the UW research liaison.