AMHERST, Mass. – A startup artificial intelligence company with roots at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently received a coveted two-year, $750,000 Phase II grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research program – also known as “America’s Seed Fund” – to advance their research on curbing disinformation online.
AuCoDe’s CEO Shiri Dori-Hacohen says, “Conspiracy theories, bots and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns show how crucial factual information is in today’s chaotic climate that includes the pandemic, civil unrest and the intensely divisive U.S. election cycle. NSF’s continued support for AuCoDe’s research recognizes that our patent-pending machine learning approach and strongly qualified team is uniquely positioned to improve the health and veracity of the entire online ecosystem.”
Computer scientist Shiri Dori-Hacohen founded AuCoDe – for automated controversy detection – in 2016 as a spinoff of UMass Amherst computer science NSF-funded research on online controversies with co-founder and computer science professor James Allan, a world-renowned expert in information retrieval. Serial entrepreneur Julian Lustig-Gonzalez joined the team as business co-founder in 2019.
The team won UMass Amherst’s Innovation Challenge – a four-part cross-campus entrepreneurship competition sponsored by the Isenberg School of Management that launches promising ventures to the next levels of startup – in 2016. The company has since been nurtured by Isenberg’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and others in the campus’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
AuCoDe’s new grant will allow the company to grow its team and bring its technology to market. As AuCoDe’s vice president of research, Keen Sung, explains, the technology is urgently needed as an increasing number of state agencies, nonprofit groups, and media outlets are growing concerned about the immense growth in conspiracy theories and disinformation online, particularly in the face of the global pandemic and domestic terror threats such as QAnon.
Sung adds, “Social networks and information sources are designed to keep people addicted. In addition to known problems such as online echo chambers, we’re seeing a steep rise in entities that exploit this system, manipulate the way people think, and amplify emotional topics to promote discord.”
AuCoDe’s award includes financial support for the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Data Science’s summer program, “Data Science For the Common Good.” The company’s latest NSF grant follows an earlier Phase I award in 2018 and brings AuCoDe’s total funding raised to date to over $1 million.