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The frenemies running Microsoft's and Google's AI ops have some serious history

Beatrice Nolan   

The frenemies running Microsoft's and Google's AI ops have some serious history
  • Microsoft's Mustafa Suleyman and Google's Demis Hassabis were childhood friends.
  • In 2010 the pair cofounded DeepMind, which was later bought by Google.

Google's Demis Hassabis and Microsoft's Mustafa Suleyman first met in London when the latter was still at school.

Suleyman, the son of a taxi driver, and Hassabis, a chess child prodigy, both grew up in different parts of north London.

The pair are separated by eight years, and Hassabis had already begun a computer science degree at the University of Cambridge when he met Suleyman in the mid-1990s.

By 2010, the two had cofounded DeepMind along with fellow researcher Shane Legg. Less than four years later, Google acquired it for more than $500 million.

With Hassabis at the helm, the Google DeepMind is at the forefront of Google's AI push.

Meanwhile, Suleyman, who left Google in 2022, is heading up Microsoft's AI efforts.

From childhood friends to two of the most important players in AI, the two Londoners have found themselves on opposite sides of an increasingly tense race between Big Tech's oldest rivals.

Deep rivalry

Hassabis and Suleyman seem to view their relationship somewhat differently.

The younger cofounder spent much of his career in Hassabis's shadow — first at DeepMind and later at Google after it acquired the AI startup.

Speaking to The New York Times, Suleyman called his relationship with Hassabis "a friendly and respectful rivalry."

In a separate interview, Hassabis dismissed the idea of a rivalry with his former business partner altogether. Speaking about Suleyman, Hassabis told the newspaper: "Most of what he has learned about AI comes from working with me over all these years."

The pair spent more than nine years working together at DeepMind. During that time, Hassabis acted as the company's public face and CEO, largely leading the company's high-profile acquisition deal with Google.

Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO at the time of the acquisition, last year told Fast Company he only got to know Suleyman after spending considerable time with Hassabis.

"I didn't understand at the time how good a technologist he was because Demis sort of overwhelmed him in that sense — he was sort of in Demis's shadow," Schmidt said. "But I think in the past few years, he's emerged from that shadow."

At DeepMind, Suleyman was initially chief product officer and later head of applied AI. In 2020, he finally joined DeepMind's parent company, Google, as a vice president of AI product management and policy.

But Suleyman's attempt to step decisively out of Hassabis's shadow came when he left Google and cofounded Inflection AI in 2022.

Just two years later, Inflection was bought by Microsoft, and Suleyman was installed as the company's CEO of AI.

'Pretty relentless'

Suleyman's time at DeepMind was not without controversy, and in early 2022 the DeepMind cofounder left Google to join venture capital firm Greylock Partners.

In a podcast interview on Greylock's website, Suleyman said he'd "really screwed up" when asked about complaints regarding his management style.

Suleyman described himself as "very demanding and pretty relentless," adding: "I think that at times that created an environment where I basically had pretty unreasonable expectations of what people were to be delivering and when, and ended up being pretty hard-charging, and that created a very rough environment for some people."

London calling

One of Suleyman's first moves as Microsoft's newly installed AI chief was to launch an AI hub in London, which is also home to Google DeepMind.

The move is part of a wider AI talent war between tech companies and sets the stage for a wider battle with Suleyman's old company.

"There is an enormous pool of AI talent and expertise in the UK, and Microsoft AI plans to make a significant, long-term investment in the region as we begin hiring the best AI scientists and engineers into this new AI hub," Suleyman wrote in the announcement.

The move could prove savvy for Microsoft as major tech companies eye up Google's high-quality pool of AI talent.

Microsoft already has a presence in London, but the fact that the new hub is focused on AI and run by a DeepMind cofounder will not have escaped Hassabis' attention.

Representatives for Hassabis and Suleyman didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from Business Insider.

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