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

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

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

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

Their journey 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 cutting rivalries. In 2010, they were two of three founders of DeepMind, an artificial intelligence research lab that was supposed to prevent the very thing they are now deeply involved in: a growing rush by profit-driven companies to build and deploy intelligence artificial.

Their paths diverged after a clash with DeepMind, which Google acquired for $650 million in 2014. When the AI ​​race began in late 2022 with the arrival of the online chatbot ChatGPT, Google put the Dr. Hassabis of his research on artificial intelligence. Mr. Suleyman took a more difficult path: founding another artificial intelligence start-up, Inflection AI, which struggled to gain traction before Microsoft unexpectedly hired him and most of his employees.

“We've always seen the world differently, but we've all agreed that this will be the next big technological transition,” Mr. Suleyman said of his old family friend in an interview. “It's always a friendly and respectful rivalry.”

Microsoft's push into artificial intelligence with its partner OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, has shaken Google. The two companies are now battling to control what many experts see as the next dominant computing platform, a battleground as important as the web browser and before that the smartphone. Dr. Hassabis is leading the creation of Google's AI technology, while Mr. Suleyman works to put Microsoft's artificial intelligence into the hands of ordinary people.

Although Mr. Suleyman sees their relationship as a cordial rivalry, Dr. Hassabis believes that any talk of rivalry is exaggerated. He doesn't see Suleyman as a major threat, because competition in the AI ​​industry 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 artificial intelligence comes from working with me all these years.”

When the two first met, Mr Suleyman was in primary school and Dr Hassabis had started a degree in computer science at Cambridge University. While Dr Hassabis competed in the annual Varsity Chess Match between Cambridge and Oxford, his younger brother, George, and Mr Suleyman taught chess to local children at a Wednesday evening maths school run by the Hassabis family in north London.

Mr Suleyman later studied philosophy and theology at Oxford, before dropping out to help set up 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 for a PhD in neuroscience. But they shared an interest in high-stakes poker. “We're both pretty good,” Mr. 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 the technologies of the future. Mr. Suleyman aimed to immediately change society by improving health care and bridging the gap between the haves and have-nots.

“Demis had aspirations of pure science,” said Reid Hoffman, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Microsoft board member who helped found both OpenAI and Mr. Suleyman’s Inflection AI. “He convinced Mustafa that this science could be a high-level attempt to make things better for society – for humanity.”

Dr. Hassabis was finishing postdoctoral work at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, a laboratory at University College London that combined neuroscience (the study of the brain) with artificial intelligence (the study of brain-like machines). Seeing Mr. Suleyman as a determined personality who could help build a start-up, he invited him to the Gatsby to meet a philosophically minded artificial intelligence researcher, Shane Legg. In the afternoon they gathered in a nearby Italian restaurant, cultivating the belief that artificial intelligence could change the world.

By the end of 2010, after arranging a meeting with Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, the three had secured funding for DeepMind. Its stated mission was to build artificial general intelligence, or AGI, a machine capable of doing everything the human brain can do.

They were also determined to develop a technology free from the economic pressures that typically drive large businesses. They said 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 with DeepMind) worked on intelligent machines, it was Mr. Suleyman's job to build products and find revenue. He and his team have explored an AI video game, an AI fashion app and even whether AI could help one company, Hampton Creek, make vegan mayonnaise, said a former colleague.

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

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

Mr. Suleyman later said of his time at DeepMind: “I really screwed up. I remain very sorry for the impact this caused on people and the pain people felt there.”

He was placed on leave in August 2019, with DeepMind saying he needed a break after a hectic 10 years. Several people told Dr. Hassabis that the punishment should be more extensive, two people familiar with the conversations said.

Months later, Mr. Suleyman began working at Google's California headquarters. Privately, Mr. Suleyman thought Dr. Hassabis had stabbed him in the back, a person familiar with their relationship said.

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

When OpenAI released ChatGPT less than a year later, sparking an industry-wide rush to create similar technologies, Google responded forcefully. Last April, the company merged its in-house AI lab with DeepMind and put Dr. Hassabis on board.

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

For a time, Suleyman remained an independent voice warning against the tech giant and calling for government regulation of artificial intelligence. An opinion piece he wrote with Ian Bremmer, a well-known 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 in trouble. In March, Inflection AI effectively disappeared at Microsoft, with Suleyman put in charge of a new Microsoft business that will work to inject AI technologies into the company's consumer services.

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

They still text each other from time to time. They could meet for dinner if they are in the same city. But Dr. Hassabis said he doesn't care much about what Mr. Suleyman or any other rivals are doing.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *