Google’s DeepMind Acqui-Hires Two AI Teams In The UK, Partners With Oxford

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Earlier this year Google acquired DeepMind in the UK to expand the work that it is doing in artificial intelligence, and today the company announced that it is making some more significant moves to build this out even further.

It is acqui-hiring the two academic teams of founders, seven people in all, behind Dark Blue Labs and Vision Factory, two deep learning startups based in the UK, and it is also partnering with Oxford University, which had spun out the two startups, to build out wider research efforts further in the area of AI.

The Oxford partnership will be coming with a “substantial donation”, according to a blog post announcing the news from Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind and VP of engineering at Google. It will also see at least some of the people behind Dark Blue Labs and Vision Factory continue to lecture and research at the university.

We are reaching out to Google to see if we can get a more specific figure for the Oxford investment and also for the acquisition of the two companies. Google acquired DeepMind for over $500 million in January of this year. The FT (paywalled) estimates the acquisitions together are in the region of tens of millions of pounds.

The news confirms murmurs that we had heard soon after the DeepMind acquisition that Google was potentially eyeing up further talent grabs, specifically in the UK, to expand its AI and deep learning capabilities.

Fuelled by research at institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College in London, the country has produced a lot of talent specifically in the area of AI and deep learning. As we pointed out, many of these startups fly under the radar, and in the words of my colleague Steve, are “chronically underfunded.”

DeepMind had raised some $50 million prior to its Google acquisition with a number of high-flying investors backing it such as Founders Fund and Horizons Ventures, but this appears to have been the exception rather than the norm.

In that vein, it’s unsurprising to see founders and companies getting snapped up, and also unsurprising to see Google investing to help fund further research in the field.

What this will do is help bring together a bigger community of top minds, all under the Google banner.

“Google DeepMind has hired all seven founders of these startups with the three professors holding joint appointments at Oxford University where they will continue to spend part of their time,” Hassabis notes in his blog post. “These exciting partnerships underline how committed Google DeepMind is to supporting the development of UK academia and the growth of strong scientific research labs.”

To be sure, these are some heavy hitters that Google is picking up. Prof Nando de Freitas, Prof Phil Blunsom, Dr Edward Grefenstette and Dr Karl Moritz Hermann, the academics behind Dark Blue Labs, focus on natural language understanding and deep learning.

“They will be spearheading efforts to enable machines to better understand what users are saying to them,” Hassabis writes.

He further describes Prof Andrew Zisserman — one of the founders of Vision Factory, along with Dr Karen Simonyan and Max Jaderberg — as “one of the world’s foremost experts on computer vision systems, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the only person to have been awarded the prestigious Marr Prize three times.”

Computer vision systems address a number of different areas; one is to write algorithms that can help robots process three-dimensional objects and movements.