Google Brain, protein-folding DeepMind fold into one

Great minds in tech come together to solve hard problems – such as, why did anyone think Bard was a good name?

Google Brain and DeepMind are merging to form a new unit named, predictably enough, Google DeepMind to accelerate the development of general AI, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai argued on Thursday. 

Pichai claimed Google has been an "AI-first company" since 2016. As neural networks rapidly progressed, he said, the biz has integrated machine learning capabilities to revamp existing software products like Search and Gmail, while adding it to hardware like its Pixel smartphones.

The corporation has also cultivated a strong internal AI research team with Brain, he said, but it was time to make some changes. Google Brain is well-known for developing the popular transformer architecture currently powering large AI systems around the world, the TensorFlow machine learning software library, and novel techniques to train and scale large language models.

The sorts of things Microsoft, OpenAI, and their ilk are championing like mad at the moment, which must be a bit awkward and frustrating for Googlers.

"The pace of progress is now faster than ever before. To ensure the bold and responsible development of general AI, we're creating a unit that will help us build more capable systems more safely and responsibly," Pichai said in a canned statement. "Combining all this talent into one focused team, backed by the computational resources of Google, will significantly accelerate our progress in AI."

Fine words but they are perhaps a little too late for Pichai, who has come under fire for being slow to put his organization's AI technologies into production, allowing rivals to deploy buzzy new products first and steal away its former employees.

The merger of Google Brain and DeepMind comes after Microsoft rolled out its chatbot user interface for Bing, weeks before Google released its own version, Bard. 

Millions of users flocked to the new Bing as the chatbot captured widespread public attention due to its antics and being the latest shiny-shiny. Meanwhile, Bard's launch was considered a flop by many after it answered a query about NASA's James Webb Space Telescope incorrectly in a demo. To be clear, Microsoft's Bing bot isn't really any better and also made errors during a live presentation.

Although AI chatbots tend to make up information, a phenomenon described as "hallucination," the pressure is on for Google to maintain its dominance in internet search and advertising as competitors rush to deploy generative AI products that challenge that virtual monopoly. 

Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind, will lead the new group as CEO, whilst Jeff Dean, head of Google AI leading its research initiatives will become Google DeepMind's Chief Scientist and will report to Pichai. Hassabis will work on core research developing general AI technologies. 

DeepMind has become well-known for its ambitious research projects like its go-playing AlphaGo agent or protein-folding AlphaFold model. The London-based lab reported losses of hundreds of millions of dollars in operating costs for years, and only recently started turning a profit from 2020 onward by applying its technology to Google's products and services. 

Both companies have always had a close relationship. Google initially acquired DeepMind in 2014 for $600 million before it restructured as a subsidiary owned by Alphabet in 2015. DeepMind's health unit was also folded into Google Health in 2018. 

"Combining our talents and efforts will accelerate our progress towards a world in which AI helps solve the biggest challenges facing humanity, and I'm incredibly excited to be leading this unit and working with all of you to build it," Hassabis said in a statement. 

"Together, in close collaboration with our fantastic colleagues across the Google Product Areas, we have a real opportunity to deliver AI research and products that dramatically improve the lives of billions of people, transform industries, advance science, and serve diverse communities." ®

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