Google recently put one of the founders of DeepMind, Mustafa Suleyman, on indefinite leave. DeepMind, the lab that specializes in artificial intelligence, was acquired by Google in 2014 for around US$600 million.
Problems at DeepMind
According to Google, the decision to have Suleyman take a leave of absence was mutual. Suleyman had this to say on Twitter: “There’s been some speculation over the last 24 hours about what I’m up to. After ten hectic years, I’m taking some personal time for a break to recharge and I’m looking forward to being back in the saddle at DeepMind soon.”
However, not everyone is convinced about the matter. Some believe that Suleyman’s exit could be the result of him being involved in a controversial health project between 2016 and 2018 that dealt with a mobile app called “Streams.” The app was designed to help doctors easily identify people who were at risk of developing kidney injury. In 2017, DeepMind was accused of gaining access to over 1.6 million records of patients from London’s Royal Free Hospital. The Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s privacy regulator, had severely criticized the company.
In the following year, DeepMind’s health team was absorbed into a new division named Google Health. Google also removed Suleyman from being involved in the unit and placed him in an advisory team created to review ethical issues related to AI. This is said to have troubled Suleyman, since he wanted DeepMind to operate independently of Google. And with the news of his current leave, many believe that Google might be slowly expelling Suleyman from DeepMind.
Suleyman founded DeepMind in 2010 together with his partners Shane Legg and Demis Hassabis. After being acquired by Google, DeepMind gained international attention when its “AlphaGo” program beat a human Go player in a five-match game. The player, Lee Sedol, was a world champion in the game of Go. In January this year, the company launched “AlphaStar,” an AI program designed to play the strategy game StarCraft II. The program apparently has the knowledge of almost 200 years of playing time. In a series of game challenges, AlphaStar beat 10 professional players consecutively.
DeepMind and financial losses
A big issue plaguing DeepMind is its losses. In 2016, the company suffered losses to the tune of US$154 million. By 2017, that more than doubled to US$371 million. And in 2018, losses were recorded at US$570 million. Within three years, the company stacked up over US$1 billion in losses. To make matters worse, DeepMind has US$1 billion in debt that will be due in the coming 12 months.
The reason for these losses is that DeepMind continues to hire thousands of researchers and engineers for its projects without generating any revenue. After all, AI is still in its infancy. It will take a long time, probably several more years, for AI to become a money-spinner. Until then, the only thing Google can do is to watch DeepMind churn out one loss after another. The real question is how long can Google tolerate a loss-making company.
Back in 2017, Google sold off its robotics lab, Boston Dynamics, after several years of such losses. Experts feel that DeepMind might face a similar future if the company does not present a profitable opportunity in the next few years. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has currently invested close to US$2 billion in DeepMind.