Google has made its largest European acquisition yet with the purchase of DeepMind, an artificial intelligence start-up based in London.
DeepMind, which counted Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures among its backers, was operating in a secretive “stealth mode” before it had launched its first products when Google swooped to snap up its team and sophisticated “machine learning” technology, through which computers can teach themselves new capabilities without human input.
Two people familiar with the situation confirmed the deal. One said Google moved “extremely quickly” to beat Facebook to the acquisition, and is paying around £300m ($500m) for DeepMind. Google declined to comment on its purchase. DeepMind did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Late last year Facebook created an artificial intelligence team to better understand the emotions or behaviour implied in posts to its site. IBM is investing $1bn to build a new business unit around Watson, its “cognitive computing” project.
DeepMind, which caused a buzz last year when it presented to an influential group of tech entrepreneurs and investors at the Founders Forum event in New York, said on its website that it was aiming to “combine the best techniques from machine learning and systems neuroscience to build powerful general-purpose learning algorithms”.
It had said the first commercial products based on its technology would be in games, ecommerce and simulations but it is unlikely those products will come to market in their current form after the Google deal.
However, little is known about the start-up, which despite its prominent investors and aggressive hiring spree had kept a low profile in London’s sociable start-up scene. Job advertisements posted online over the last year describe it as building “general purpose learning algorithms”.
One ad, for an intern to work on a “big data” project, began its pitch with: “Are you worried that the only place for smart people with a passion for software in London is in soul-crushing finance? Are you looking to work in a company that invests in hard research to create cutting edge new machine learning algorithms?”
Larry Wasserman, a professor in the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in a blogpost in 2012 after meeting the company that it was “trying to build a system that thinks”, by combining machine learning and neuroscience. “I thought it sounded crazy until [co-founder Shane Legg] told me the list of famous billionaires who have invested in the company,” Prof Wasserman wrote.
Given enough computing horsepower, the technology could create a “world of super-intelligent computers surpassing humans”, he speculated. According to Companies House records, DeepMind counts among its directors Bart Swanson, formerly of dating app Badoo and now an investor at Horizons Ventures, and Luke Nosek, a PayPal co-founder who formed Founder’s Fund with Thiel.
The company was founded by 37-year-old Demis Hassabis, a London-born teenage chess prodigy who went on to programme popular simulation games such as Theme Park. He left gaming to study for a PhD in neuroscience at University College London and published research on amnesia before founding DeepMind in 2012.
The deal is the latest in a growing number of Google acquisitions in futuristic technologies, including robotics pioneer Boston Dynamics, maker of realistic animal and humanoid machines. Earlier this month, Google paid $3.2bn to buy Nest Labs, which makes “smart home” devices, its largest-ever purchase of a private company. Other Silicon Valley companies are also pursuing artificial intelligence technology.