Google has been putting serious investment into building out its artificial intelligence, deep learning and robotics capabilities, and this week the company made its latest move to tap into some of the more cutting edge work going on in the field, specifically in Europe.
The search giant, through its German division Google Germany, has made an investment in the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (the DFKI), a nonprofit institute where some 450 scientists, academics and others work on projects in areas like language technology, embedded intelligence, augmented reality, knowledge management, and mulitmedia analysis and data mining. It also spins out businesses based on those projects. It’s one of the largest research centers of its kind with a 2015 budget of €41 million ($46 million).
Google is not disclosing the value of its stake in the center but confirms that it will give Google a seat on the DFKI’s board.
A Google spokesperson says that the size of the investment is equal to that taken by 16 other private companies that partner with DFKI. Existing partners include industrial giants like Airbus and BMW as well as Intel, Microsoft, Nuance and SAP. Selected partners that also have seats on the board include Harting Technology, Empolis Information Management, and Deutsche Telekom.
The DFKI claims to be the first research organization in Europe to get an investment and board member from Google. But it’s not the first time that Google has made AI investments in Europe, or even in academic research into AI.
Google in 2014 paid more than $500 million to acquire AI startup DeepMind in the UK. Then, the DeepMind team acqui-hired two more AI startups and Google made a substantial investment into Oxford University’s AI research efforts. This year, Google followed on from that with an investment in Oxford University’s Venture Fund by way of Google Ventures.
For DFKI, getting Google on board will help the organization — which operates in Kaiserslautern, Saarbrücken, Bremen and Berlin — potentially get more of its research out into the market as actual products.
“The global market presence of Google opens up a unique opportunity,” read the DFKI press statement on Google’s investment. “I am sure that we can revolutionize mobility, living and working for the future with the next generation of autonomous assistance systems in innovation alliances with Google and our other shareholders,” noted Dr. Wolfgang Wahlster, CEO of the DFKI.
For Google’s part, the company had already been making a lot of internal investments in areas like AI, deep learning, machine learning and robotics — sometimes as tools to run live services today, and sometimes as an investment for whatever Google might like to do tomorrow. Adding an investment in the DFKI will give Google a direct line to external cutting-edge research in the area.
The two have been working together since 2001, noted Dr. Wieland Holfelder, engineering director, Google Germany. “[This investment] binds us together in a long-standing close partnership.”
Developing research partnerships and investments in AI could also be a strategic move for Google in another way: the company has been the subject of investigations by European regulators over being too dominant in businesses like online search and mobile, and of how well it safeguards user privacy.
Despite Google’s efforts, a lot of this paints Google in a negative light. Google using its muscle to back completely new areas of technology that are at the core of Europe’s own digital progress agenda is one way of trying to counterbalance that.
There is yet one more reason why it makes a lot of sense for Google to invest here: Getting an early look at some of the tech that has commercial potential could also give Google an advantage over rival companies that want to build up their own AI capabilities. That is a race that has also spilled into Europe, home to some of the more interesting research into the subject. Just last week, Apple acquired VocalIQ in the UK.