The Robots Are Coming: Zuckerberg, Kutcher Invest in Artificial Intelligence Startup

Facebook's CEO and the Hollywood star are both lead investors in a $40 million round investing into San Francisco-based Vicarious.

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By Catherine Clifford • Mar 21, 2014

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Mark Zuckerberg already knows a lot about you, your mom, your dad, your friends, what your new baby looks like, where you went on vacation and what you wore to that party last weekend. Now, he wants to get inside your brain.

The Facebook founder, along with Hollywood actor-investor Ashton Kutcher, recently participated in a $40 million investment round for San Francisco-based artificial intelligence startup Vicarious.

This is not the first time that Zuckerberg and Kutcher have backed the same company. This past October, they participated in a $4 million seed round for Panorama Education, a Cambridge, Mass.-based education technology company.

Related: Does Google's Buying Spree Mean the Robot Apocalypse Is Near?

Several news reports indicate that Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla motors, was also a lead investor in the $40 million round. Vicarious co-founder Scott Phoenix told that he had no comment on whether Musk was involved.

Venture capital firm Formation8 also participated, Phoenix said.

Vicarious is relatively vague about what it does – probably because its team of science masterminds are working on things we mere mortals would hardly understand. "We are building software that thinks and learns like a human," the company's homepage says. Peter Thiel, a heavyweight Silicon Valley investor, has said, "Vicarious is bringing us all closer to a future where computers perceive, imagine, and reason just like humans."

One thing that Vicarious' technology has been proven to accomplish is getting past a CAPTCHA test. An example of a CAPTCHA test is a program that requires a web user to type in letters that are obscured and distorted, making them, in theory, undetectable by a computer bot. CAPTCHA tests are typically considered flawed if an algorithm can get past the wall 1 percent of the time. Vicarious' technology has been able to get by CAPTCHAs used by Google, Yahoo and PayPal 90 percent of the time. And it's doing it with innovative technological "thinking."

"Recent AI (artificial intelligence) systems like IBM's Watson and deep neural networks rely on brute force: connecting massive computing power to massive datasets. This is the first time this distinctively human act of perception has been achieved, and it uses relatively minuscule amounts of data and computing power," said Phoenix of the company's CAPTCHA feat.

Related: Why You Should Revolt Against the 'Robot Uprising'

Down the line, the technology that Vicarious develops will be used in industries including robotics, clean energy and medicine, Phoenix told

This most recent round of funding is Vicarious' third. In 2012, the San Francisco-based software company received $20 million in two rounds from top tier venture capital firms, including Founders Fund.

Interest in artificial intelligence technology has recently been heating up across Silicon Valley. Earlier this year, Google paid $400 million for artificial-intelligence startup DeepMind. Late last year, it bought Boston Dynamics, a company making rugged robots for the U.S. military and humanoid robots for work in hazardous environments.

While Zuckerberg is out investing in external artificial intelligence companies, his internal Facebook team is investing heavily in the space. The latest face-recognition software released from Facebook's in house artificial intelligence group is almost as capable of recognizing people's faces as a human being.

Related: Intel Wants to Make Computers Think More Like Humans

Catherine Clifford

Senior Entrepreneurship Writer at CNBC

Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.

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