As the tech giants race to develop the next big thing in artificial intelligence (AI), one member of the Greek diaspora is at the forefront of this exciting push for computing innovation.
Demis Hassabis, a member of the Greek diaspora in the United Kingdom, is the CEO and co-founder of DeepMind, the AI research laboratory responsible for Google’s AI development efforts.
Hassabis co-founded DeepMind in London in 2010. Just four years later, Google purchased the machine learning AI start-up for £400 million (approx. $600 million).
Google’s leading figure in AI was born to a father of Greek Cypriot descent and a Chinese-Singaporean mother. His mother worked in John Lewis, a British department store, and his father “did lots of different things”, notably working as a singer and songwriter.
Reflecting on his parent’s interests and his own path in life, Hassabis noted that “Neither of them are technical at all, which is quite bizarre.”
“My interest in AI and computers came from games initially — and that pre-dated even having a computer,” explained the British-Greek tech CEO. He took an early interest in chess which he quickly become adept at; so much so that he was able to compete for prize money.
“The first thing I bought with the prize money from one of my big wins was a Spectrum computer,” recalled Hassabis. “I had this feeling that this was a kind of magical device. Looking back on it now, just as you think of a car as a machine that amplifies human capabilities physically the computer to me felt like that for the mind. I think I intuitively understood that as a child.”
If you program AI to play chess in the morning, by lunch it can beat most players, and by the evening, it's stronger than world champions, said Demis Hassabis, CEO at DeepMind Technologies. pic.twitter.com/p2ZcHUs1WZ
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) April 16, 2023
Video game design and university education
Before diving into the world of AI development and selling his company to Google, the British-Greek CEO found success in the video game industry. In fact, his first efforts in video game development during a gap year generate enough money to fund his university education.
Hassabis completed his A-Levels and scholarship level exams two years early at the ages of 15 and 16 and secured a place at Cambridge University. Owing to his young age, the university asked him to take a gap year.
During his gap year, he took his first job in video game development with Bullfrog Productions. At the age of just 17, Hassabis worked as a co-designer and lead programmer on the 1994 game Theme Park.
After leaving Bullfrog, Hassabis enrolled in Queens’ College, Cambridge to pursue his studies. He completed the Computer Science Tripos program and, in 1997, he graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Double First degree.
Following the completion of his degree, Hassabis returned to the gaming industry, this time working for Lionhead Studios. He then founded his own company, Elixir Studios in 1998. He held the position of executive designer for the video games Republic: The Revolution and Evil Genius, both of which were nominated for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards.
Following his work in the gaming industry, Hassabis returned to academia and pursued a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at University College London (UCL). His goal was to draw inspiration from the workings of the human brain to develop novel algorithms for artificial intelligence (AI). In 2009, he successfully completed his PhD program.
DeepMind, AI, and Google
In 2010, the British-Greek tech expert founded DeepMind, a machine learning AI start-up; four years later it was acquired by Google for £400 million.
At the time of the acquisition, Hassabis explained that DeepMind’s work and research mostly involved “learning algorithms — ones that automatically learn how to do things from raw data, rather than being programmed to do things”.
“We are not trying to copy or interface with the brain,” he added. “We look at state-of-the-art neuroscience and cherry-pick the key principles behind how we think the mind works and see if we can convert them into an algorithm.”
Recently, Hassabis, who is at the forefront of Google’s efforts to innovate in the field of AI predicted that artificial general intelligence (AGI) could soon be on the horizon, given the rapid development in AI technologies.
AGI is a theoretical concept that involves AI achieving cognitive capabilities comparable to those of humans.
DeepMind developed an AI program that created a 3D mapping of all 200 million proteins known to science. The CEO predicts it would have taken humans a billion years to complete this project. pic.twitter.com/DbFysLBQ7s
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) April 16, 2023