Artificial Intelligence

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Acquires AI Science Search Tool, Will Make It Free

The Facebook founder and his wife's philanthropic company aims to accelerate research by unleashing Meta, an AI-powered search engine that is tailor-made for scientists.

A substantial part of the day in biophysicist and RNA folding expert Alan Chen's lab is consumed by combing through research journals to ensure that he and his team are aware of new studies pertinent to their field. Such drudgery is typical of many laboratories.

"Right now, literally, most labs split up all the major journals, two to three per student, and we each spend 30 minutes a day wading through hundreds of articles to see if anything relevant comes out every day," said Chen, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University at Albany in New York. "It's super tedious."

A newly announced plan could help ease that task and enable thousands of researchers around the world to find research connected to their studies — efficiently and for free.

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan's $45 billion charitable company announced plans this week to acquire the Toronto-based company Meta, an AI-powered search engine that is tailor-made for scientists.

The startup was founded in 2010, charging users for subscriptions and custom-made products. Now the product will be made fully accessible for free to anyone who signs up.

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The idea is to link up research with common themes, citations and goals, according to Sam Molyneux, a geneticist who co-founded the company with his sister, Amy Molyneux, a web developer. More than 4,000 scientific papers are published each day in biomedicine alone, he noted.

"Using current tools, most will not be read by other scientists who can learn from them," Molyneux said in a statement announcing the acquisition. "Scientists lack the means to make sense of the vast amount of research being produced around the world. To speed up progress, researchers need to be able to learn from each other's insights in real time."

To help scientists make those connections, Meta's AI crunches through millions of papers, taking note of common citations, patterns and topics. It also profiles its users and offers up suggestions in the same way Amazon might recommend certain items for you to buy once you've made a purchase.

But researchers aren't only using Meta to discover related research and data. They can also use it to help find funding and connect with other researchers with whom they can collaborate. The search tool can also help funding organizations identify and contact authors to back future research.

"It seeks out the most relevant or impactful studies in a scientific area the moment they are published, and finds patterns in the literature on a scale that no human being could accomplish alone," Cori Bargmann, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's president of science, and CTO Brian Pinkerton said in a Facebook post.

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Chen is eager to see if the network delivers on its promise.

"Identifying influential papers or trending research would also be super helpful," he said. "There's such a staggering amount of research being published that it's impossible to actually read any sizable fraction of it."

A smart search network could help Chen's team separate the wheat from the chaff among the perpetually growing body of research in his field — modeling RNA folding structures in an effort to better understand how viruses ransack the body.

Researchers like Chen currently rely on institutional access to services, such as Web of Science or Scopus, which are expensive and largely inaccessible to researchers associated with cash-strapped institutions, such as those in the developing world. They are also designed in such a way that you have to know exactly what you're looking for to find it.

A smarter search engine - particularly one that's free — could be a considerable boost for science.

"What's intriguing is the claim that they use AI to index based on perceived scientific relevance rather than just who cited what and how many times," said Chen. "That would be huge."

Beyond the field of science, the Meta product could also help schools by offering smart searches to make certain that students are seeing the latest relevant research in their subjects.

Meta is currently enhancing its product, and plans to make its tools free to all within a few months.

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