Artificial intelligence and machine learning are transforming the technology industry, which is why Google dropped $650 million on UK-based DeepMind in 2014. DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has been at the heart of the company’s research and industry outreach efforts, but now he’s mysteriously been placed on leave from the company he started with current CEO Demis Hassabis. DeepMind has been vague about the situation, but Bloomberg claims the move stems from controversy over some of Suleyman’s projects.
It’s hard to overstate how vital neural networks like the ones developed by DeepMind can be to a company like Google — it’s more than machines that can crush human StarCraft II and Go players. Google uses neural networks to generate natural-sounding speech, categorize photos, and process photos. AI is what took Google’s smartphone cameras from poor to industry-leading.
At DeepMind, Suleyman headed up the “Applied AI” group, which attempted to find uses for the company’s technology in fields like energy and healthcare. This led Suleyman to become a key figure communicating the company’s intentions and ethical controls on the use of AI. That hasn’t always gone smoothly, though. One 2016 initiative from the applied AI group involved a collaboration with the UK’s National Health Service. The team wanted to create a mobile app called Stream that could predict acute kidney issues. The company got access to 1.6 million patient records, but a UK court later ruled that deal violated patient privacy. DeepMind and Suleyman both issued apologies. In 2018, Google announced it was absorbing the Streams team, creating a new division called Google Health. DeepMind Health ceased operation, and Suleyman was removed from the day-to-day running of the unit. It seems unlikely the latest development is still blowback from Streams. Suleyman is important to DeepMind, and DeepMind is important to Google. By some measures, the company burns $500 million per year, but Google is leaning hard into AI as its future.
DeepMind spokespeople say that Suleyman is “taking time out right now after 10 hectic years.” They frame this as a mutual decision that will only last a few months, and that could be entirely true. However, this would not be the first time a nasty breakup was smoothed over by PR, something hinted at in the Bloomberg report. Bloomberg doesn’t delve into the nature of the “controversy,” leaving everyone to speculate.