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Demis Hassabis (DeepMind): the playground of intelligence

The former child prodigy of chess is now focused on a different kind of victory. As the co-founder of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis explores the potential of artificial intelligence. A quest which also raises questions.

A young champion becomes a true expert


Demis Hassabis, 41, owes his success and his appetite for ever more remarkable challenges to his early and brilliant career as a chess player. He started playing at the age of 4 and quickly became a champion. At the age of 8, he acquired his first computer, using his prize money. The young Londoner then designed a program which was “already sufficiently sophisticated to beat my little brother”, he says with a smile. His interest in games and programming led him to design video games. The most famous, Theme Park, which he invented when he was 17, became the first best seller of the genre to use artificial intelligence. “Instead of killing, the player creates a world and the game adapts to his or her style of play,” its creator explains. “A piece of the puzzle was still missing”, he adds. Having completed his doctorate degree in neurosciences, he founded DeepMind in 2010.




“Technology is neutral. The way in which human beings use this technology decides its ethical nature.”

Increasingly intelligent artificial intelligence


The company’s aim is to explore the world of artificial intelligence. Working with a hundred researchers, Demis Hassabis is directly inspired by the way in which the human brain works. However, developing algorithms isn’t enough. Observing the Feyman principle of “what I cannot create, I do not understand”, DeepMind’s scientific experts focus on the concept of “reinforcement learning”. The machine observes, acts and then takes the induced changes into account. The equivalent of the effect of dopamine on the brain. A new step forward is taken when machines and programs integrate “their own creations” in their system. However, this artificial intelligence essentially tested on strategy games now needs to assimilate abstract concepts and to have a long-term memory, according to Demis Hassabis. Since it was acquired by Google in 2014, DeepMind has been tackling new challenges.

What are your plans for 2018?

The company is interested in 3D and simulating and creating real robots. As for what’s next, the former champion is focused on forms of artificial intelligence capable of mastering information databases which are so dense and governed by phenomena so complex that even the human brain can hardly understand them. This explains the 2014 deal with Google, which made so much data universally accessible. In Demis Hassabis’ view, the challenges of the modern world - climate, health, energy, etc. - increasingly seem to be subjects which artificial intelligence can no longer ignore. New frontiers which lead to ethical reflection which the scientist refuses to avoid, admitting that these innovations call for a real sense of responsibility. And although he’s looking further ahead, dreaming of artificial intelligence which can dream and with a form of consciousness, Demis Hassabis first wants to focus on the progress of "the theory of everything", with machines which can convert unstructured information into ordered knowledge. The adventure is only just beginning.

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