Liquid AI, a new MIT spinoff, wants to build an entirely new type of AI


Brain model with neuron, synapse, receptor and verbs. on dark backgrounds.
Image Credits: dem10 / Getty Images

An MIT spinoff co-founded by robotics luminary Daniela Rus aims to build general-purpose AI systems powered by a relatively new type of AI model called a liquid neural network.

The spinoff, aptly named Liquid AI, emerged from stealth this morning and announced that it has raised $37.5 million — substantial for a two-stage seed round — from VCs and organizations including OSS Capital, PagsGroup, WordPress parent company Automattic, Samsung Next, Bold Capital Partners and ISAI Cap Venture, as well as angel investors like GitHub co-founder Tom Preston Werner, Shopify co-founder Tobias Lütke and Red Hat co-founder Bob Young.

The tranche values Liquid AI at $303 million post-money.

Joining Rus on the founding Liquid AI team are Ramin Hasani (CEO), Mathias Lechner (CTO) and Alexander Amini (chief scientific officer). Hasani was previously the principal AI scientist at Vanguard before joining MIT as a postdoctoral associate and research associate, while Lechner and Amini are longtime MIT researchers, having contributed — along with Hasani and Rus — to the invention of liquid neural networks.

What are liquid neural networks, you might be wondering? My colleague Brian Heater has written about them extensively, and I strongly encourage you to read his recent interview with Rus on the topic. But I’ll do my best to cover the salient points.

A research paper titled “Liquid Time-constant Networks,” published at the tail end of 2020 by Hasani, Rus, Lechner, Amini and others, put liquid neural networks on the map following several years of fits and starts; liquid neural networks as a concept have been around since 2018.

Liquid neural networks
Image Credits: MIT CSAIL

“The idea was invented originally at the Vienna University of Technology, Austria at professor Radu Grosu’s lab, where I completed my Ph.D. and Mathias Lechner his master’s degree,” Hasani told TechCrunch in an email interview. “The work then got refined and scaled at Rus’ lab at MIT CSAIL, where Amini and Rus joined Mathias and I.”

Liquid neural networks consist of “neurons” governed by equations that predict each individual neuron’s behavior over time, like most other modern model architectures. The “liquid” bit in the term “liquid neural networks” refers to the architecture’s flexibility; inspired by the “brains” of roundworms, not only are liquid neural networks much smaller than traditional AI models, but they require far less compute power to run.

It’s helpful, I think, to compare a liquid neural network to a typical generative AI model.

GPT-3, the predecessor to OpenAI’s text-generating, image-analyzing model GPT-4, contains about 175 billion parameters and ~50,000 neurons — “parameters” being the parts of the model learned from training data that essentially define the skill of the model on a problem (in GPT-3’s case generating text). By contrast, a liquid neural network trained for a task like navigating a drone through an outdoor environment can contain as few as 20,000 parameters and fewer than 20 neurons.

Generally speaking, fewer parameters and neurons translates to less compute needed to train and run the model, an attractive prospect at a time when AI compute capacity is at a premium. A liquid neural network designed to drive a car autonomously could in theory run on a Raspberry Pi, to give a concrete example.

Liquid neural networks’ small size and straightforward architecture afford the added advantage of interpretability. It makes intuitive sense — figuring out the function of every neuron inside a liquid neural network is a more manageable task than figuring out the function of the 50,000-or-so neurons in GPT-3 (although there have been reasonably successful efforts to do this).

Now, few-parameter models capable of autonomous driving, text generation and more already exist. But low overhead isn’t the only thing that liquid neural networks have going for them.

Liquid neural networks’ other appealing — and arguably more unique — feature is their ability to adapt their parameters for “success” over time. The networks consider sequences of data as opposed to the isolated slices or snapshots most models process and adjust the exchange of signals between their neurons dynamically. These qualities let liquid neural networks deal with shifts in their surroundings and circumstances even if they weren’t trained to anticipate these shifts, such as changing weather conditions in the context of self-driving.

In tests, liquid neural networks have edged out other state-of-the-art algorithms in predicting future values in datasets spanning atmospheric chemistry to car traffic. But more impressive — at least to this writer — is what they’ve achieved in autonomous navigation.

Earlier this year, Rus and the rest of Liquid AI’s team trained a liquid neural network on data collected by a professional human drone pilot. They then deployed the algorithm on a fleet of quadrotors, which underwent long-distance, target-tracking and other tests in a range of outdoor environments, including a forest and dense city neighborhood.

According to the team, the liquid neural network beat other models trained for navigation — managing to make decisions that led the drones to targets in previously unexplored spaces even in the presence of noise and other challenges. Moreover, the liquid neural network was the only model that could reliably generalize to scenarios it hadn’t seen without any fine-tuning.

Drone search and rescue, wildlife monitoring and delivery are among the more obvious applications of liquid neural networks. But Rus and the rest of the Liquid AI team assert that the architecture is suited to analyzing any phenomena that fluctuate over time, including electric power grids, medical readouts, financial transactions and severe weather patterns. As long as there’s a dataset with sequential data, like video, liquid neural networks can train on it.

So what exactly does Liquid AI the startup hope to achieve with this powerful new(ish) architecture? Plain and simple, commercialization.

“[We compete] with foundation model companies building GPTs,” Hasani said — not naming names but not-so-subtly gesturing toward OpenAI and its many rivals (e.g. Anthropic, Stability AI, Cohere, AI21 Labs, etc.) in the generative AI space. “[The seed funding] will allow us to build the best-in-class new Liquid foundation models beyond GPTs.”

One presumes work will continue on the liquid neural network architecture, as well. Just in 2022, Rus’ lab devised a way to scale liquid neural networks far beyond what was once computationally practical; other breakthroughs could be lurking on the horizon with any luck.

Beyond designing and training new models, Liquid AI plans to provide on-premises and private AI infrastructure for customers and a platform that’ll enable these customers to build their own models for whatever use cases they conjure up — subject to Liquid AI’s terms, of course.

“Accountability and safety of large AI models is of paramount importance,” Hasani added. “Liquid AI offers more capital efficient, reliable, explainable and capable machine learning models for both domain-specific and generative AI applications.”

Liquid AI, which has a presence in Palo Alto in addition to Boston, has a 12-person team. Hasani expects that number to grow to 20 by early next year.

More TechCrunch

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 days ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’