Mustafa Suleyman: The liberal activist who cofounded Google's £400 million artificial intelligence lab
- Mustafa Suleyman is a 33-year-old entrepreneur and activist.
- He sold his artificial intelligence company DeepMind to Google for £400 million in 2014.
- Suleyman dropped out of university and worked as an activist before getting involved in artificial intelligence.
Mustafa Suleyman is one of the three cofounders of DeepMind, an artificial intelligence (AI) lab in London that was acquired by Google in 2014 for a reported £400 million - the search giant's largest acquisition in Europe to date.
Listen to a few of Suleyman's talks on YouTube and you'll quickly realise that he's a left-leaning activist who wants to make the world a better place for everyone as opposed to an elite few. He differs from many of today's tech founders in that he genuinely seems to care about the welfare of everyone on the planet.The 33 year old - affectionately known as "Moose" internally at DeepMind and amongst his friends - lives in Peckham, South London, with his artist fiancée. He can often be seen on Twitter retweeting Labour politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn and making his thoughts known on issues like homelessness, diversity, and inequality.
DeepMind may be owned by one of the largest companies in the world but Suleyman strongly believes capitalism is failing society in a number of areas. He explained this during a talk at a Google event last May.
"We believe today that in some sense, capitalism in many ways has delivered so much for us over the last couple of centuries," Suleyman said at a Google ZeitgeistMinds event in London. "We've delivered so much progress. No other construct or idea has been able to distribute benefits so broadly and so rapidly. And yet in many areas, capitalism is currently failing us. We actually need a new kind of set of incentives to tackle some of the most pressing and urgent social problems and we need a new kind of tool, a new kind of intelligence, that is distributed, that is scaled, that is accessible, to try and make sense of some of the complexity that is overwhelming us."
DeepMind's not-so-simple mission is to solve intelligence and then to use that to solve everything else. The company is building complex algorithms that can learn for themselves using techniques similar to those seen in the human brain. Ultimately, it hopes to end up with something that works like an artificial hippocampus - the part of the brain that is mainly associated with memory, and long-term memory in particular.
Since its incorporation in 2011, DeepMind has been aggressively hiring some of the smartest computer scientists, neuroscientists, mathematicians, and physicists around the world. Today it employs around 700 people across offices in the UK (London), Canada (Edmonton and Montreal), and the US (Mountain View). The vast majority of DeepMind's staff (over 500 people) are currently located across two floors in Google's main office in London's King's Cross.
Unlike his cofounders, Suleyman does not have a background in science. As a result, he is more focused on the business side of the company and today he is trying to find applications for DeepMind's technology both inside and outside of Google while also ensuring that the company's work in AI remains safe and ethical.
Suleyman grew up in North London and developed a passion for philosophy
Suleyman grew up just off Caledonian Road in North London where he lived with his parents and his two younger brothers. His father was a Syrian-born taxi driver and his mother was an English nurse in the NHS.
Suleyman went to Thornhill Primary School (a state school in Islington) followed by the free, but selective, Queen Elizabeth boys school in Barnet.
Suleyman read widely as a child, according to a Wired feature on DeepMind from June 2015, developing an early love for philosophy. He also had a passion for business and entrepreneurship from an early age and he wasn't afraid to try to hustle his fellow students on the school playground.
When I started secondary school at 11, me and my best friend started selling sweets in the playground.
"Ever since I was a kid I was always starting small businesses and dreaming they would one day grow like crazy," Suleyman told Business Insider.
"When I started secondary school at 11, me and my best friend started selling sweets in the playground. We would go to the wholesaler and buy in bulk and rent people's lockers to store them in. We started hiring other kids out at break-times to sell for us. It got pretty big before the teachers shut it down."
Suleyman moved from selling sweets in the playground to exploring how he could help the disabled in his spare time.
"A few years later, a team of us got together and spent a summer visiting restaurants and attractions across London in a wheelchair we borrowed to review their accessibility for disabled people," he said. "Based on that, we published an 80-page guide to London for young disabled people."It's part of the reason why I believe so strongly that if we rewrite the incentives for businesses today to include social responsibility in addition to fiduciary duties, plenty of leaders will jump at the chance to redirect their energies toward building a better, fairer world."
As a straight A student, Suleyman could afford to be fairly selective about where he went to university. He chose to go to Oxford - one of the top (and most elite) universities in the world - to read philosophy and theology. Interestingly, Suleyman joined Oxford's Mansfield College, which is leading the charge on anti-elitism at the university; nine in 10 of the students it admitted in 2017 came from state schools.
"Philosophy and theology is an interesting course and I thought it was a nice combination," Suleyman said. "Mansfield is an amazing place to study theology, and my tutor was one of the leaders in the field."
But Suleyman realised that he didn't want to focus on education in his late teenage years.
Young and eager to get out into the world and use his intelligence to have an impact, he dropped out of the centuries-old institution at 19 because he didn't feel like his degree was practical enough.
"Throughout my life, I've always been focused on maximizing social impact with everything I do," said Suleyman. "At the time, I was enjoying studying philosophy and theology but it felt so abstract and impractical to me.
"Like many teenage activists I guess I was restless and angry at what I saw as such widespread injustice and inequality. And I felt compelled to do something to help people directly in the wider world."
Suleyman dropped out of Oxford to set up a counselling service for young Muslims
After dropping out, Suleyman and his university friend Mohammed Mamdani set up a telephone counselling service called the Muslim Youth Helpline which went on to become one of the largest mental health support services of its kind in the UK."I wanted to broaden my scope to tackle social challenges affecting all of society, not just a specific subgroup," Suleyman said. "At the Helpline I realised that the problems many of our service users were facing were actually rooted in the wider systemic inequalities and prejudices present in broader society."
At 22, Suleyman left Muslim Youth Helpline after realising non-profit organisations are held back by multiple factors.
"After three or four years, I realised in some sense the fundamental limitations of charities," Suleyman told The Financial Times. "It was really difficult to scale the organisation and to raise funds in a sustainable way."
He went on to work for former London mayor Ken Livingstone.
"When I got an offer to work for Mayor Ken Livingstone on human rights policy, it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to to fight the systemic injustices that create so much of the suffering I saw first hand at the Helpline."
He left City Hall when he realised that government wasn't the vehicle to promote radical systemic change either. "It was pretty challenging and despite all of the high-minded principles it was actually really difficult to get practical things done on a day-to-day basis," Suleyman told the FT.
Suleyman worked with the UN, the US government, and Shell
Following his stint in politics, Suleyman helped to cofound a consultancy called Reos Partners, which aims to help drive change on global issues like food production, waste, and diversity.
"[Through Reos Partners] I ended up working for a whole bunch of different organisations including the UN, the US government, the Dutch government, WWF, Shell," he told the FT. His work for Shell was on sustainability-related projects. "We worked all over the world, ended up growing [Reos Partners], which is still going today, to about five or six offices around the world - specialising in large scale conflict resolution and negotiation."Suleyman left Reos Partners in 2010 after a year-long piece of facilitation work at the Copenhagen climate negotiations left him feeling frustrated. "There was a very natural alignment back in late 2009, early 2010 when I had just sort of finished the climate negotiations, which of course were at the time a massive disaster and everybody was really broken hearted" he told the FT.
He added: "Traditional vehicles for addressing climate change - the various meetings and minds, grassroots campaigning, high level political negotiations, waiting for spontaneous market driven outcomes - were, to put it bluntly, just not working fast enough. Time and again we found ourselves failing to come to grips with a dizzyingly complex world, with groups of the smartest experts struggling to make sense of the relationship between cause and effect.
"Of course climate change is just one of many strands of a complex, interdependent, and dynamic set of problems that we currently face as a species. If we don't tackle these problems, the future of humanity and the planet is at best uncertain. At worst, it's an extremely grim prognosis."
DeepMind was born in London in 2009
Realising the potential that technology and AI have to benefit the world, Suleyman set up DeepMind around the end of 2009 with his childhood friend Demis Hassabis and a New Zealander called Shane Legg.
Before incorporating DeepMind, Suleyman and Hassabis (who were friends through Hassabis's younger brother) had many deep discussions and debates about how to improve the world. They typically approached the matter from different angles but they both say they're fundamentally motivated by the opportunity to alleviate human suffering at scale, and they've talked about how best to do that endlessly."Demis and I grew up in the same neighborhood and his younger brother and I were - and still are - best friends," said Suleyman. "We often had conversations about how to improve and impact the world - from solving inequality to malnutrition. He felt the solutions would come through simulations that could model the complex dynamics in the world causing these problems, while I would always emphasize more near-term practical change efforts.
"Building and applying general purpose learning systems combined our two different approaches. And after working in many different arenas - from government to think tanks and the charity sector - trying to tackle our most intractable social challenges, it was clear to me that we needed new institutions, creativity and knowledge in order to navigate the growing complexity of our social systems. Reapplying existing human knowledge was not going to be enough. Starting a new kind of organisation with the single purpose of building AI and using it to solve the world's toughest problems was our best shot at having a transformative, large scale impact on society's most pressing challenges."
Suleyman is well-liked across DeepMind and the UK tech sector. Many people said they liked the fact that he's humble and down to Earth, and they respect the fact that he's willing to talk about difficult issues like equal pay and capitalism in a way that many other tech leaders aren't. He's seen by some as a revolutionary and whether he realises it or not, may people are more than willing to sign up to his mission and his way of thinking.
In the company's early days, Suleyman made several trips to Silicon Valley and successfully convinced billionaires like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to invest in DeepMind, telling them that he and his cofounders planned to hoover up as much brain power in Europe as they could and get these smart young people working on the most advanced AI systems on the planet.
Frank Meehan, an early investor in DeepMind and a former board member on virtual assistant startup Siri, which was acquired by Apple in 2010, said he first met Suleyman when DeepMind employed about six or seven people and was based out of a tiny office in London's Russell Square.
"Mustafa is a key part of the whole thing," Meehan told Business Insider. "He's confident, he's energetic, and he stays on top of things," said Meehan. "He's focused and he gets things done."
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), former head of the No 10 Policy Unit, and an independent reviewer of DeepMind Health, described Suleyman as an "open" and "rounded" leader, adding that he respects his willingness to talk about the big issues facing the world's tech giants.
"Everyone thinks if Mustafa is running the world it would be a pretty amazing place, to be honest," Taylor told Business Insider. "The question is whether or not he is someone inside the system genuinely transforming the culture of Google, or, if you were cynical, is he the kind of acceptable face for an industry that knows it has its issues but is actually going to plough on regardless?"
Taylor added: "I think he works with the most genuine intentions but the reality is well-intentioned people don't always do well-intentioned things."Commenting on his relationship with Suleyman, Hassabis said: "Mustafa is a fantastic cofounder - we were family friends growing up together in North London and we share a deep belief in the potential of scientific and technical advances for positive social change. He brilliantly leads our applied and commercial efforts including spearheading our work in healthcare and energy, as well as being a respected thought leader on the ethical and societal impact of AI."
Suleyman is leading DeepMind's health projects
DeepMind's algorithms have been used by Google to reduce the amount of energy used in its vast fleet of enormous data centres by 15%. "Anything that we can do to reduce the amount of energy required to deliver the same service is fantastic for the planet and has a very significant dollar impact at the bottom line, which is also good," Suleyman said in July 2016. Google has also used DeepMind's WaveNet neural network to generate the Google Assistant voices for US English and Japanese.
Looking outside Google, Suleyman, who oversees a growing DeepMind Health team, has convinced several NHS trusts to work with DeepMind on projects including a patient monitoring app for clinicians and an AI system that can learn to spot early signs of cancer.
DeepMind's work with the NHS didn't get off to the best start and Suleyman found himself under the spotlight when a freedom of information request from New Scientist revealed the extent of a data sharing agreement with the Royal Free Trust in North London, which was DeepMind's first NHS deal.
The deal - which was later deemed illegal by the Information Commissioner's Office, the UK's top data regulator - gave DeepMind access to 1.6 million NHS patient records to help it build a kidney monitoring app called Streams.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a statement at the time: "There's no doubt the huge potential that creative use of data could have on patient care and clinical improvements, but the price of innovation does not need to be the erosion of fundamental privacy rights. Our investigation found a number of shortcomings in the way patient records were shared for this trial. Patients would not have reasonably expected their information to have been used in this way, and the Trust could and should have been far more transparent with patients as to what was happening."But that's the only major setback that the company has had since it was acquired by Google.
Looking ahead, DeepMind is keen to work with the National Grid to see how it can cut energy consumption across the UK in the same way that it's helped Google in its data centres.
Beyond that, Suleyman is also one of the founding members of the Partnership on AI - an organisation set up in September 2016 to ensure that AI is developed safely, ethically, and transparently - along with Facebook's AI head Yann LeCun, Microsoft Research director Eric Horvitz, and several others.
Suleyman accepts there are very real concerns about the future of AI
While AI clearly has great potential, academics, philosophers, and technologists have warned that AI may be humanity's biggest downfall if it is programmed incorrectly or harnessed for wrong doing.
Renowned scientist Stephen Hawking said at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon last November: "Success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don't know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it."
When it comes to DeepMind's research, Suleyman and his cofounders realise that there are two sides to the coin.
The DeepMind leaders allowed their startup to be acquired by Google on the condition that Google set up an internal AI ethics board to oversee AI developments across the entire organisation.
Little is known about the mysterious ethics board but Suleyman said at a Bloomberg conference in 2015 that he wanted Google to disclose the board members. He's been asked about the board several times since then but remained tight lipped.
"Getting these things right is not purely a matter of having good intentions," Suleyman wrote in Wired this month. "We need to do the hard, practical and messy work of finding out what ethical AI really means. If we manage to get AI to work for people and the planet, then the effects could be transformational. Right now, there's everything to play for."
SULEYMAN'S 3 FAVOURITE BOOKS
- Van Illich's "Deschooling Society," a penetrating commentary on the shortcomings of institutionalised education. Illich accomplishes that most difficult of feats, complementing his critique with a set of practical and creative proposals for alternative approaches.
- "Inventing the Future" by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams tackles the likely ramifications of intensified automation for the future of work, and the prospects for policies like UBI. The book distinguishes itself by taking absolutely seriously the difficult and contentious political dimensions to this debate.
- "Transparency and the Open Society" by Roger Taylor and Tim Kelsey is a timely and detailed inquiry into the complexities that surround greater openness, together with a framework for thinking through transparency as effective policy.
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