FT Lunch with Hassabis

Source: FT, Jan 2015

“It’s quite possible there are unique things about humans,” he argues. “But, in terms of intelligence, it doesn’t seem likely. With the brain, there isn’t anything non-computable.” In other words, the brain is a computer like any other and can, therefore, be recreated. Traits previously considered innate to humans — imagination, creativity, even consciousness — may just be the equivalent of software programs.

His ambition is to create “general” AI systems that use “unstructured” information from their surroundings to make independent decisions and predictions. Just as humans do.

It was around this time he decided to create DeepMind, a research project-cum-tech start-up. Hassabis says that, even then, he was aware this was a 20-year plan. First, he would need to gather the experience necessary to found such a group and thus, in 1998, he set up a video games company, Elixir Studios, to begin his education in the business world. In 2005, he returned to academia, aged 28, to earn a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at University College London. His research focused on the hippocampus, the brain region crucial for navigation, memory recall and imagining future events.

In a reference to Nasa’s efforts to put men on the moon, Hassabis says he is trying to create an “Apollo programme” for AI, by creating an organisation stuffed with some of the greatest minds on earth. “In any normal start-up, just one of our senior researchers is someone you’d build a whole company around,” he says.

But how does Hassabis lead a group of people like this? “You can’t just say, ‘I’m the CEO, so you do this.’ You’ve got to lead by example and respect for your own work. It’s not why I did a PhD . . . but to lead a team like this, I need academic qualities . . . ” For once, he struggles to explain himself. You need credentials that are unimpeachable, I say? “Unimpeachable. That’s the right word.”

What motivates him? Is it money? The Google deal reportedly netted Hassabis around £80m. He argues, convincingly, that being rich is of little concern. “It’s important to have money so it frees you to make the correct choices for your goals. But it should never be an end itself.”

Perhaps then, his legacy is what drives him? After all, if he becomes the father of artificial intelligence, Hassabis would be held in the same regard as the likes of Babbage, or another one of his heroes Alan Turing, the British cryptographer who designed the machine that broke the Nazi Enigma code.

He ponders this, a scoop of luminous green sorbet on his spoon. “You know how you asked me, when I played chess, is it important for me to win? It is massively important, from my own point of view of fulfilling my own potential. Legacy is important in that, one day, I will hope to have done something significant enough with my life, and with the technology, that will have made a profound change to society for good.”

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