Mark Zuckerberg with his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan. Courtesy Meta's website.

Published: January 24th, 2017

A Toronto-based startup that allows users to browse the latest scientific research as it hits the web has become the latest acquisition by Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm.

By joining the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Meta Inc. will be able to fulfill its goal of providing a publicly available search engine that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze peer-reviewed scientific articles from across the world, Meta CEO and co-founder Sam Molyneux wrote in a Jan. 23 post on the organization’s website.

“The notion that scientific knowledge has out-scaled human efforts is well known, but while AI has solved information bottlenecks in other markets, it has yet to impact the speed of the research ecosystem,” Molyneux wrote, emphasizing that the Chan Zuckerberg acquisition would change that.

Meta’s new owner will be gaining a powerful tool supporting its goal of helping the world’s scientific community cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative wrote in a Jan. 22 Facebook post.

“Each day, more than 4,000 scientific papers are published in biomedicine alone,” Molyneux wrote. “To speed up progress, researchers need to be able to learn from each other’s insights in real time.”

Financial terms of the acquisition, which is still pending court approval, were not disclosed.

Founded in 2010 by Molyneux, a cancer genomics researcher, and his sister Amy, a technologist, Meta’s current platform is the result of partnerships with dozens of publishers using a copyright-aligned model, and is used by researchers at more than 1200 institutions worldwide.

Meta’s AI, developed in partnership with Siri creators SRI International, is not only capable of providing Google-like access to millions of papers, but “reading” them in advance to identify elements that might be of particular interest to others in the scientific community.

“We created neural network systems that look at hundreds of signals within new papers, as they are published, to project their future impact with striking accuracy,” Molyneux wrote.

While accessing its services required a subscription fee in the past, moving forward Meta does not intend to profit from its search engine’s data and capabilities, Molyneux wrote. Instead, the organization’s focus will be on making sure the information reaches whoever needs it most, regardless of sector or country of origin. Its team also intends to pursue additional partnerships, through open solicitations, convenings, joint projects, and grants, in fields such as machine learning, network science, ontologies, science metrics, and data visualization.

“From my first conversation with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative last year, it was clear how much we shared in common: from their passion for improving human health, to their belief in the power of technology to enable progress, to their focus on helping scientists,” Molyneux wrote. “We are inspired by their amazing team and feel privileged to join and to collaborate with the tremendous talent they are bringing together.”

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