Mustafa Suleyman: The liberal activist who cofounded Google's $486 million artificial intelligence lab (GOOG)

Mustafa Suleyman 1831_preview (1)

  • Mustafa Suleyman is a 35-year-old entrepreneur and
    activist. 
  • He and his cofounders sold their artificial
    intelligence company DeepMind to Google for £400 million (now $486
    million) in 2014. 
  • Suleyman dropped out of university and worked as an
    activist before getting involved in artificial
    intelligence. 
  • In August 2019 news emerged that he was taking “time
    out” from DeepMind, although it isn’t clear why.
  • Visit Business
    Insider’s homepage for more stories. 

Mustafa Suleyman is one of the three cofounders of DeepMind, an
artificial
intelligence
(AI) lab in London that was
acquired by Google
in 2014 for a reported £400 million — the
search giant’s largest acquisition in Europe to date. 

Listen to a few of Suleyman’s talks on YouTube and you’ll
quickly realise that he’s a left-leaning activist who wants to make
the world a better place for everyone as opposed to an elite
few. He differs from many of today’s tech founders in that he
genuinely seems to care about the welfare of everyone on the
planet.

The 35-year-old — affectionately known as “Moose” internally
at DeepMind and among his friends — lives in Peckham, South
London, with his artist fiancée. He can often be
seen on Twitter
making his thoughts known on issues like
homelessness, diversity, and inequality, and also once retweeted
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

DeepMind may be owned by one of the largest companies in the
world but Suleyman strongly believes capitalism is failing society
in a number of areas. He explained this during a talk at a Google
event in 2017. 

“We believe today that in some sense, capitalism in many ways
has delivered so much for us over the last couple of centuries,”

Suleyman said at a Google ZeitgeistMinds event
in London.
“We’ve delivered so much progress. No other construct or idea has
been able to distribute benefits so broadly and so rapidly. And yet
in many areas, capitalism is currently failing us. We actually need
a new kind of set of incentives to tackle some of the most pressing
and urgent social problems and we need a new kind of tool, a new
kind of intelligence, that is distributed, that is scaled, that is
accessible, to try and make sense of some of the complexity that is
overwhelming us.”

DeepMind’s not-so-simple mission is to solve intelligence and
then to use that to solve everything else. The company is building
complex algorithms that can learn for themselves using techniques
similar to those seen in the human brain. Ultimately, it hopes to
end up with something that works like an artificial hippocampus —
the part of the brain that is mainly associated with memory, and
long-term memory in particular. 

Since its incorporation in 2011, DeepMind has been aggressively
hiring some of the smartest computer scientists, neuroscientists,
mathematicians, and physicists around the world. As of 2018 it
employed around 700 people across offices in the UK (London),
Canada (Edmonton and Montreal), and the US (Mountain View). The
vast majority of DeepMind’s staff (over 500 people) are currently
located across two floors in Google’s main office in London’s
King’s Cross. 

Unlike his cofounders, Suleyman does not have a background in
science. As a result, he is more focused on the business side of
the company and today he is trying to find applications for
DeepMind’s technology both inside and outside of Google while also
ensuring that the company’s work in AI remains safe and
ethical.  

Suleyman grew up in North London and developed a passion for
philosophy

The Cally

Suleyman grew up just off Caledonian Road in North London where
he lived with his parents and his two younger brothers. His father
was a Syrian-born taxi driver and his mother was an English nurse
in the NHS.

Suleyman went to Thornhill Primary School (a state school in
Islington) followed by the free, but selective, Queen Elizabeth
boys school in Barnet.

Suleyman read widely as a child, according to a Wired feature on DeepMind
from June 2015
, developing an early love for philosophy. He
also had a passion for business and entrepreneurship from an early
age and he wasn’t afraid to try to hustle his fellow students on
the school playground.  

When I started secondary school at 11, me and my best friend
started selling sweets in the playground.

 

“Ever since I was a kid I was always starting small
businesses and dreaming they would one day grow like crazy,”
Suleyman told Business Insider.

“When I started secondary school at 11, me and my best
friend started selling sweets in the playground. We would go to the
wholesaler and buy in bulk and rent people’s lockers to store them
in. We started hiring other kids out at break-times to sell for us.
It got pretty big before the teachers shut it down.”

Suleyman moved from selling sweets in the playground
to exploring how he could help the disabled in his spare
time. 

“A few years later, a team of us got together and
spent a summer visiting restaurants and attractions across London
in a wheelchair we borrowed to review their accessibility for
disabled people,” he said. “Based on that, we published an 80-page
guide to London for young disabled people.

“It’s part of the reason why I
believe so strongly
that if we rewrite the incentives for
businesses today to include social responsibility in addition to
fiduciary duties, plenty of leaders will jump at the chance to
redirect their energies toward building a better, fairer
world.”

As a straight A student, Suleyman could afford to be
fairly selective about where he went to university. He chose to go
to Oxford — one of the top (and most elite) universities in the
world — to read philosophy and theology. Interestingly, Suleyman
joined Oxford’s Mansfield College, known for leading
the charge
on anti-elitism at the university; nine in 10 of the
students it admitted in 2017 came from state schools.

“Philosophy and theology is an interesting course and
I thought it was a nice combination,” Suleyman said. “Mansfield is
an amazing place to study theology, and my tutor was one of the
leaders in the field.”

Oxford Uni bridge of sighs

But Suleyman realised that he didn’t want to focus on education
in his late teenage years.

Young and eager to get out into the world and use his
intelligence to have an impact, he dropped out of the centuries-old
institution at 19 because he didn’t feel like his degree was
practical enough. 

“Throughout my life, I’ve always been focused on
maximizing social impact with everything I do,” said Suleyman. “At
the time, I was enjoying studying philosophy and theology but it
felt so abstract and impractical to me.

“Like many teenage activists I guess I was restless
and angry at what I saw as such widespread injustice and
inequality. And I felt compelled to do something to help people
directly in the wider world.”

Suleyman dropped out of Oxford to set up a counselling service for
young Muslims

After dropping out, Suleyman and his university friend
Mohammed Mamdani set up a telephone counselling service called the
Muslim Youth Helpline which went on to become one of the largest
mental health support services of its kind in the UK. 

“I wanted to broaden my scope to tackle social
challenges affecting all of society, not just a specific subgroup,”
Suleyman said. “At the Helpline I realised that the problems many
of our service users were facing were actually rooted in the wider
systemic inequalities and prejudices present in broader
society.”

At 22, Suleyman left Muslim Youth Helpline after realising
non-profit organisations are held back by multiple factors. 

“After three or four years, I realised in some sense the
fundamental limitations of charities,” Suleyman told
The Financial Times
. “It was really difficult to scale the
organisation and to raise funds in a sustainable way.” 

Ken Livingstone

He went on to work for former London mayor Ken
Livingstone. 

“When I got an offer to work for Mayor Ken Livingstone on human
rights policy, it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to to fight
the systemic injustices that create so much of the suffering I saw
first hand at the Helpline.” 

He left City Hall when he realised that government wasn’t the
vehicle to promote radical systemic change either. “It was pretty
challenging and despite all of the high-minded principles it was
actually really difficult to get practical things done on a
day-to-day basis,” Suleyman told the FT. 

Suleyman worked with the UN, the US government, and Shell

Following his stint in politics, Suleyman helped to cofound a
consultancy called Reos Partners, which aims to help drive change
on global issues like food production, waste, and diversity. 

“[Through Reos Partners] I ended up working for a whole bunch of
different organisations including the UN, the US government, the
Dutch government, WWF, Shell,” he told the FT. His work for Shell
was on sustainability-related projects. “We worked all over the
world, ended up growing [Reos Partners], which is still going
today, to about five or six offices around the world —
specialising in large scale conflict resolution and
negotiation.”

Suleyman left Reos Partners in 2010 after a year-long piece of
facilitation work at the Copenhagen climate negotiations left him
feeling frustrated. “There was a very natural alignment back in
late 2009, early 2010 when I had just sort of finished the climate
negotiations, which of course were at the time a massive disaster
and everybody was really broken hearted” he told the FT. 

He added: “Traditional vehicles for addressing climate change
— the various meetings and minds, grassroots campaigning, high
level political negotiations, waiting for spontaneous market driven
outcomes — were, to put it bluntly, just not working fast
enough. Time and again we found ourselves failing to come to grips
with a dizzyingly complex world, with groups of the smartest
experts struggling to make sense of the relationship between cause
and effect.

“Of course climate change is just one of many strands of a
complex, interdependent, and dynamic set of problems that we
currently face as a species. If we don’t tackle these problems, the
future of humanity and the planet is at best uncertain. At worst,
it’s an extremely grim prognosis.” 

DeepMind was born in London in 2009

Realising the potential that technology and AI have to benefit
the world, Suleyman set up DeepMind around the end of 2009 with his
childhood friend Demis Hassabis and a New Zealander called Shane
Legg.  

DeepMind founders

Before incorporating DeepMind, Suleyman and Hassabis (who were
friends through Hassabis’s younger brother) had many deep
discussions and debates about how to improve the world. They
typically approached the matter from different angles but they both
say they’re fundamentally motivated by the opportunity to alleviate
human suffering at scale, and they’ve talked about how best to do
that endlessly.

“Demis and I grew up in the same neighborhood and his
younger brother and I were — and still are — best friends,”
said Suleyman. “We often had conversations about how to improve and
impact the world — from solving inequality to malnutrition. He
felt the solutions would come through simulations that could model
the complex dynamics in the world causing these problems, while I
would always emphasize more near-term practical change efforts.

“Building and applying general purpose learning
systems combined our two different approaches. And after working in
many different arenas — from government to think tanks and the
charity sector — trying to tackle our most intractable social
challenges, it was clear to me that we needed new institutions,
creativity and knowledge in order to navigate the growing
complexity of our social systems. Reapplying existing human
knowledge was not going to be enough. Starting a new kind of
organisation with the single purpose of building AI and using it to
solve the world’s toughest problems was our best shot at having a
transformative, large scale impact on society’s most pressing
challenges.”

Suleyman is well-liked across DeepMind and the UK tech
sector. Peers have said they liked the fact that he’s humble and
down to Earth, and they respect the fact that he’s willing to talk
about difficult issues like equal pay and capitalism in a way that
many other tech leaders aren’t. He’s seen by some as a
revolutionary and whether he realises it or not, may people are
more than willing to sign up to his mission and his way of
thinking.

In the company’s early days, Suleyman made several
trips to Silicon Valley and successfully convinced billionaires
like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to invest in DeepMind, telling them
that he and his cofounders planned to hoover up as much brain power
in Europe as they could and get these smart young people working on
the most advanced AI systems on the planet.

Frank Meehan, an early investor in DeepMind and a
former board member on virtual assistant startup Siri, which was
acquired by Apple in 2010, said he first met Suleyman when DeepMind
employed about six or seven people and was based out of a tiny
office in London’s Russell Square.

“Mustafa is a key part of the whole thing,” Meehan told Business
Insider. “He’s confident, he’s energetic, and he stays on top of
things,” said Meehan. “He’s focused and he gets things done.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the
encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), former head
of the No 10 Policy Unit, and an independent reviewer of DeepMind
Health, described Suleyman as an “open” and “rounded” leader,
adding that he respects his willingness to talk about the big
issues facing the world’s tech giants.

“Everyone thinks if Mustafa is running the world it would be a
pretty amazing place, to be honest,” Taylor told Business
Insider.

Taylor said that if he were to take a cynical view of DeepMind,
“the question is whether or not he is someone inside the system
genuinely transforming the culture of Google, or, if you were
cynical, is he the kind of acceptable face for an industry that
knows it has its issues but is actually going to plough on
regardless?”

But he
later clarified on Twitter
that he has a “very positive” view
of Suleyman and the company.

Commenting on his relationship with Suleyman, Hassabis said:
“Mustafa is a fantastic cofounder — we were family friends
growing up together in North London and we share a deep belief in
the potential of scientific and technical advances for positive
social change. He brilliantly leads our applied and commercial
efforts including spearheading our work in healthcare and energy,
as well as being a respected thought leader on the ethical and
societal impact of AI.”

Suleyman has been leading DeepMind’s health projects

DeepMind’s algorithms have been used by Google to
reduce the amount of energy
used in its vast fleet of enormous
data centres by 15%. “Anything that we can do to reduce the amount
of energy required to deliver the same service is fantastic for the
planet and has a very significant dollar impact at the bottom line,
which is also good,” Suleyman said in July 2016. Google has also
used
DeepMind’s 

WaveNet neural network
to generate the Google Assistant voices
for US English and Japanese.

DeepMind Streams

Looking outside Google, Suleyman, who oversaw and grew
DeepMind Health’s team
, convinced several NHS trusts to work
with DeepMind on projects including a patient monitoring app for
clinicians and an AI system that can learn to spot early signs of
cancer.

DeepMind’s work with the NHS didn’t get off to the best start
and Suleyman found himself in the spotlight when a freedom of
information request from New Scientist revealed the extent of a
data-sharing agreement with the Royal Free Trust in North London,
which was DeepMind’s first NHS deal.

The deal — which was later deemed
illegal by the Information Commissioner’s Office
, the UK’s top
data regulator — gave DeepMind access to 1.6 million NHS patient
records to help it build a kidney monitoring app called
Streams. 

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a statement at
the time: “There’s no doubt the huge potential that creative use of
data could have on patient care and clinical improvements, but the
price of innovation does not need to be the erosion of fundamental
privacy rights. Our investigation found a number of shortcomings in
the way patient records were shared for this trial. Patients would
not have reasonably expected their information to have been used in
this way, and the Trust could and should have been far more
transparent with patients as to what was happening.”

A little over a year later, the firm published research on

detecting around 50 different eye diseases

Under Google’s management, Suleyman’s role began to change.

In November 2018 DeepMind’s health team, including Streams, was

absorbed into a new Google subsdiary called Google Health
,
headed up by former Geisinger CEO David Feinberg. However that
didn’t mean DeepMind and Suleyman were taken off health research.
This month DeepMind published a paper on
predicting acute kidney injury up to 48 hours before it
happens
.

For a time DeepMind was also
keen to work with the National Grid
to see how it can cut
energy consumption across the UK in the same way that it’s helped
Google in its data centres, but talks between the two entities
fizzled without producing a deal,
Forbes reported in March
.

Suleyman is also one of the founding members of the Partnership
on AI — an
organisation set up in September 2016
to ensure that AI is
developed safely, ethically, and transparently — along with
Facebook’s AI head Yann LeCun, Microsoft Research director Eric
Horvitz, and several others.

Suleyman was reported to be going on leave in August 2019

Bloomberg first got the story, reporting that Suleyman
had been placed on leave
, “after controversy over some of the
projects he led.” 

A spokeswoman for DeepMind told Business Insider: “Mustafa’s
taking some time out right now after ten hectic years,” although
declined to elaborate why, saying the company doesn’t comment on
employees’ personal reasons to taking time off. She added that
Suleyman was expected to return towards the end of the year.

The report
sparked some speculation
on a possible rift between DeepMind
and Google over how to commercialise DeepMind’s work. The
Financial Times reported
earlier this month that DeepMind’s
losses had risen 55% to £470 million ($571 million) in its bids to
secure the brightest AI talent.

Suleyman accepts there are very real concerns about the future of
AI

While AI clearly has great potential, academics, philosophers,
and technologists have warned that AI may be humanity’s biggest
downfall if it is programmed incorrectly or harnessed for wrong
doing. 

Renowned scientist
Stephen Hawking said
at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon
last November: “Success in creating effective AI could be the
biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We
just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped
by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by
it.” 

When it comes to DeepMind’s research, Suleyman and his
cofounders realise that there are two sides to the coin.

The DeepMind leaders allowed their startup to be acquired by
Google on the condition that Google set up an internal AI ethics
board to oversee AI developments across the entire
organisation.

Little is known about the mysterious ethics board but Suleyman
said at a Bloomberg conference in 2015 that he wanted Google to
disclose the board members. He’s been asked about the board several
times since then but remained tight lipped. 

“Getting these things right is not purely a matter of having
good intentions,”
Suleyman wrote in Wired
this month. “We need to do the hard,
practical and messy work of finding out what ethical AI really
means. If we manage to get AI to work for people and the planet,
then the effects could be transformational. Right now, there’s
everything to play for.”

SULEYMAN’S 3 FAVOURITE BOOKS

  • Ivan Illich’s “Deschooling Society,”
    a penetrating commentary on the shortcomings of institutionalized
    education. Illich accomplishes that most difficult of feats,
    complementing his critique with a set of practical and creative
    proposals for..

Source: FS – All Tech News
Mustafa Suleyman: The liberal activist who cofounded Google's 6 million artificial intelligence lab (GOOG)