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Friends from the old neighborhood become rivals in Big Tech's AI race| GuyWhoKnowsThings


Mustafa Suleyman grew up in subsidized housing in one of the toughest areas of London. His father, a Syrian immigrant, drove a taxi. His mother was a National Health Service nurse. When the prestigious Queen Elizabeth School Accepted at the age of 11, the family moved to a safer, leafier neighborhood a few miles north.

There he met 20-year-old Demis Hassabis after befriending his younger brother. Demis was a chess prodigy and video game designer whose parents, one Greek Cypriot and the other Singaporean, ran a toy store in London.

Today they are two of the most powerful executives in the world. The technology industry's race to build artificial intelligence. Dr. Hassabis, 47, is the chief executive of Google DeepMind, the tech giant's central artificial intelligence research laboratory. Suleyman, 39, was recently named CEO of Microsoft AI, tasked with overseeing the company's push into AI consumer products.

His path from London to the executive suites of Big Tech is one of the most unusual (and personal) stories in an industry full of colorful personalities and sharp rivalries. In 2010, they were two of the three founders of DeepMind, a fundamental AI research laboratory that was supposed to prevent what they are now deeply involved in: a growing career by for-profit companies to build and deploy AI

Their paths parted after a clash at DeepMind, which Google acquired for $650 million in 2014. When the AI ​​race began in late 2022 with the arrival of the ChatGPT online chatbot, Google put Dr. Hassabis in charge of its AI research. Suleyman took a tougher path: He founded another artificial intelligence startup, Inflection AI, which was previously struggling to gain traction. Microsoft unexpectedly hired him and most of his employees.

“We have always seen the world differently, but we are aligned in the belief that this will be the next big transition in technology,” Suleyman said of his old family friend in an interview. “It is always a friendly and respectful rivalry.”

Microsoft's push into artificial intelligence with its partner OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, has Google shook. The two companies are now fighting to control what many experts see as the next dominant computing platform, a battleground as important as the web browser and smartphone that preceded it. Dr. Hassabis is driving the creation of Google's AI technology, while Suleyman is working to put Microsoft's AI in the hands of everyday people.

Although Suleyman sees their relationship as a cordial rivalry, Dr. Hassabis believes any talk of rivalry is overblown. He doesn't see Suleyman as a major threat, because competition in AI was already so high, with so many formidable companies.

“I don't think there's much to say,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “Most of what he has learned about AI comes from working with me for all these years.”

When the two met, Mr. Suleyman was in primary school and Dr. Hassabis had begun a degree in computer science at the University of Cambridge. While Dr. Hassabis competed in the annual competition University chess match between Cambridge and Oxfordhis younger brother, George, and Mr Suleyman were teaching chess to local children at a Wednesday night maths school run by the Hassabis family in north London.

Suleyman later studied philosophy and theology at Oxford, before dropping out to help start a mental health helpline for Muslim teenagers and work as a human rights officer for the mayor of London. Dr. Hassabis founded a video game company before returning to academia to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. But they shared an interest in high-stakes poker. “We're both pretty good,” Suleyman often says.

In 2010, after sitting down to play at London's Victoria Casino, they discussed how they could change the world. Dr. Hassabis dreamed of building technologies of the future. Suleyman aimed to change society immediately, improving healthcare and closing the gap between the haves and have-nots.

“Demis had aspirations of taking a trip to the moon in pure science,” said Reid Hoffman, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Microsoft board member who helped found OpenAI and Suleyman's Inflection AI. “He convinced Mustafa that this science could be a high-level bet to improve things for society, for humanity.”

Dr. Hassabis was finishing his postdoctoral work at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, a laboratory at University College London that combined neuroscience (the study of the brain) with AI (the study of brain-like machines). Seeing Mr. Suleyman as a tough personality who could help build a new company, he invited him to the Gatsby to meet with a philosophically minded AI researcher, Shane Legg. In the evenings, they met at a nearby Italian restaurant, cultivating the belief that AI could change the world.

At the end of 2010, after planning a meeting with Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, the three had raised funding for DeepMind. Their stated mission was to build artificial general intelligence, or AGI, a machine that could do anything the human brain can do.

They were also determined to develop the technology free of the economic pressures that normally drive large companies. They believed such pressures could push AI in dangerous directions, disrupt the job market, or even destroy humanity.

While Dr. Hassabis and Dr. Legg (who still works at DeepMind) were looking for intelligent machines, Mr. Suleyman's job was to create products and generate income. He and his team explored an AI video game, a trendy AI app, and even whether AI could help one company, Hampton Creek, make vegan mayonnaisesaid a former colleague.

Dr. Hassabis told employees that DeepMind would remain independent. But as their research progressed and tech giants like Facebook swooped in with millions of dollars to poach their researchers, its founders felt they had no choice but to sell out to Google. DeepMind continued to operate as a largely independent research lab, but was funded and accountable to Google.

For years, DeepMind employees had whispered about Suleyman's aggressive management style. That came to a head in early 2019, when several employees filed formal complaints accusing Suleyman of verbally harassing and intimidating them, six people said. Former employees said he had yelled at them in the open office and berated them for being bad at their jobs in long text message threads.

Mr. Suleyman pretends saying of his time at DeepMind: “I really screwed up. “I am still very sorry for the impact that that had on people and the pain that people felt there.”

It was placed on leave in August 2019, and DeepMind said it needed a break after 10 hectic years. Several people told Dr. Hassabis that the punishment should go further, two people with knowledge of the conversations said.

Months later, Suleyman got a job at Google headquarters in California. Privately, Suleyman felt that Dr. Hassabis had stabbed him in the back, said a person with knowledge of his relationship.

Suleyman's new position at Google had an important title — vice president of AI product management and policy — but he was not allowed to manage employees, two people said. He didn't like the role, a friend said, and soon left it to start Inflection AI.

When OpenAI launched ChatGPT less than a year later, sparking an industry-wide race to develop similar technologies, Google responded strongly. Last April, the company merged its local AI lab with DeepMind and put Dr. Hassabis in charge.

(The New York Times defendant OpenAI and Microsoft in December for copyright infringement of news content related to AI systems).

For a time, Suleyman remained an independent voice warning against the tech giant and calling for government regulation of AI. opinion article which he wrote with Ian Bremmer, a prominent political scientist, argued that big tech companies were becoming as powerful as nation states.

But after raising more than $1.5 billion to build an AI chatbot with virtually no revenue, his company was struggling. In March, Inflection AI effectively disappeared at Microsoftwith Suleyman put in charge of a new Microsoft business that will work to inject artificial intelligence technologies into the company's consumer services.

Suleyman, who divides his time between Silicon Valley and London, officially became a rival to Google DeepMind and opened a new Microsoft office in London to compete for the same talent. Dr. Hassabis expressed frustration to his staff that Suleyman was positioning himself as a leading AI visionary, a colleague said.

They still text each other from time to time. You may meet for dinner if you are in the same city. But Hassabis said he's not too worried about what Suleyman or any other rival is up to.

“I don't really look to others to know what we should do,” Dr. Hassabis said.


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