Oxford and Cambridge are losing AI researchers to DeepMind

CambridgeRadek Surgolewski/ShutterstockKing’s College Cambridge.

Some of the smartest minds in the UK are being lured away from their research positions at Oxford and Cambridge by DeepMind — a London-based AI lab that was acquired by Google for £400 million in 2014.

More than a dozen AI researchers have left the academic powerhouses over the last couple of years for what are likely to be better-paid roles at DeepMind, according to LinkedIn.

Steven Cave, the director of Cambridge University’s new Centre for the Future of Intelligence, believes that the exodus of talent from academia to corporates is something of a problem.

“The best people are being offered huge sums of money to go and work at these tech companies,” Cave told Business Insider in Cambridge last week. “You find that you’re talking to someone and they’re expressing a great deal of interest in a research project and then they’re snapped up.

“We’re thinking about imaginative solutions to this problem. We understand that ambitious young people want to work at these big name companies and earn lots of money and that’s fine. But at the same time we hope that there will be enough bright young things who are motivated by the intellectual challenge of the issues we’re working on and by the sense of wanting to do something good that makes a difference for the world.”

Oxford and Cambridge have set up a number of research institutions in recent years in a bid to try and get a better understanding of the likely impact of increasingly sophisticated AI systems on our species. Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, headed by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, and Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), are among them. These forward-looking research hubs are competing with DeepMind in many areas for the brightest AI thinkers.

Cave said some of the academic research being done on AI may struggle to get the attention it deserves AI specialists continue to shun academia for a job in a tech company. “There is some philosophical work that is unlikely to happen in a profit-driven company,” he said. “I was talking earlier about mapping the space of possible intelligences; that’s just not something that most tech companies would have time for.”

US tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook are also hiring Oxbridge graduates and professors but DeepMind appears to be poaching more than the rest. That could have something to do with the fact that the company’s cofounders — Demis Hassabis, Mustafa Suleyman, and Shane Legg — have all studied or worked at either Oxford or Cambridge at some point, possibly allowing them to form relationships with key heads of departments.

It could also be linked to the fact that DeepMind has grown significantly over the last couple of years. The company, which is out to “solve intelligence,” has expanded its team in King’s Cross from 100 people to around 250 people since being acquired by Google.

DeepMind has fuelled its growth by hiring graduates and professors from around the world but Oxford and Cambridge appear to be the most popular hiring grounds. DeepMind also hires people from Harvard, Stanford, and many other universities. The company also feeds back into the academic community by allowing its staff to openly publish their research, with over 100 peer reviewed papers published by DeepMind staff to-date.

But Oxford and Cambridge are still feeding talent into DeepMind. Matthew Grimes, for example, was a Cambridge postdoctoral research associate focusing on applying deep learning to vision from October 2013 to December 2015. He joined DeepMind in January 2016 as a research scientist.

Then there’s Yutian Chen, who was a research associate at Cambridge from August 2013 to August 2015. Before joining DeepMind as a research scientist in September 2015, Chen was focusing on large-scale machine learning problems and he supervised several undergraduate students on their final year project. Andrew Ballard, meanwhile, was a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge from 2012 to 2015. He left to join DeepMind in October 2015 as a researcher.

Irina HigginsLinkedIn/Irina HigginsGoogle DeepMind research scientist Irina Higgins.

Elsewhere, Irina Higgins left her role as a machine learning tutor at Oxford in April 2015 before joining DeepMind as a research scientist in June of the same year. Higgins also completed a PhD in computational neuroscience and artificial intelligence at Oxford before leaving to join DeepMind.

There are several other notable Oxbridge to DeepMind moves. For example, Edward Grefenstette, Nando de Freitas, and Karl Hermann — the cofounders of Oxford spinout Dark Blue Labs — have all left their research positions at Oxford and joined DeepMind, which makes sense, given their startup was acquired by DeepMind.

DeepMind has also hired Martin Szummer, who was once a senior researcher at Cambridge. He left the university to focus on his startup, VocalIQ, which was acquired by Apple in 2014.

Cave said he would like to see more people splitting their time between Oxbridge and tech companies. “People [could be] based in a tech company and spend a day here or vice versa is certainly a model that we’re exploring.

“To some extent a kind of revolving door between academia and industry is healthy for as long as people understand or get a code of conduct of whichever one they’re in.”

DeepMind declined to comment. However, it would likely argue that it also hires people from Harvard, Stanford, and many of the world’s other leading universities. It’s also important to note that DeepMind feeds back into the academic community more than many other tech companies by allowing its staff to openly publish their research, with over 100 peer reviewed papers published by DeepMind staff to-date.

A number of the DeepMind’s employees also teach at Oxford, UCL, and other academic institutions, while the company also sponsors some students, departments and PhD programs.

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