Google Deepmind head Demis Hassabis speaks during a press conference ahead of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match in Seoul on March 8, 2016.
Jung Yeon-Je | AFP |Getty Images | Getty Images
The U.K. government invited DeepMind co-founder and CEO Demis Hassabis to attend a meeting of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) on March 18, around the time officials were considering a lockdown.
DeepMind is an artificial intelligence (AI) lab that was acquired by Google in 2014 for a reported £400 million ($500 million). Today it sits under parent company Alphabet and is a sister company to Google.
Hassabis was invited to the Sage meeting by Patrick Vallance, who is also the government’s chief scientific advisor. His attendance, reported by The Guardian, has got people asking questions. Namely, what was the leader of an American-owned AI firm doing at a top-secret government meeting on the coronavirus?
Sage provides guidance to the Cabinet Office during emergencies. It relies on external science advice and on advice from expert groups. But the group’s largely secretive cohort, which includes the prime minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, is being probed amid concerns that the government got Britain’s response to the pandemic wrong while insisting it is following the “best science.”
Hassabis, who founded DeepMind in 2010 with childhood friend Mustafa Suleyman and New Zealand scientist Shane Legg, is a polymath and widely regarded as one of the brightest minds in Britain.
A former child chess prodigy, Hassabis took his school exams two years ahead of everyone else. He went on to take his advanced-level math exam when he was 15, followed by tests in further math, physics and chemistry when he was 16. He had to defer his place at the University of Cambridge because he was too young to attend. On his gap year, he co-created the video game “Theme Park,” before going on to take up his place at Cambridge, where he was awarded a double first class degree in computer science.
It’s not hard to see why those behind Sage might want to hear his thoughts about how the U.K. should move forward. CNBC understands that Hassabis used his time at the meeting to analyze the publicly available international data from countries ahead of the U.K. on the pandemic curve, such as Italy.
Brent Hoberman, the co-founder of Lastminute.com who now runs the Founders Factory start-up accelerator, said he was “personally delighted” to see Hassabis involved.
“The criticism of people like Demis joining Sage, and helping the NHS is an example of where cynicism goes too far,” Hoberman told CNBC. “We need to encourage our best minds to help the national effort. We can’t always assume they have a hidden agenda. This backlash can hinder other great minds stepping up. That can cost lives.”
Azeem Azhar, an entrepreneur, investor, and the creator of Exponential View podcast added: “He is brilliant. But this might be an issue of process, transparency and disclosure.”
A DeepMind spokesperson told CNBC: “Demis was one of several scientists asked to contribute his thoughts on the government’s response to COVID-19. He attended one SAGE meeting in-person on 18th March when invited to by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.”
However, some have questioned whether there is an ulterior motive at play.
Silicon Valley tech giants have become increasingly interested in health care and health care data over the last few years.The U.K.’s National Health Service could be seen as something of a holy grail in that it has a huge amount of patient data in quality databases.
Over the years, the NHS has given DeepMind a number of contracts and some of these transferred to Google last year when DeepMind’s health unit was absorbed by Google Health.
In 2017, the U.K.’s data watchdog ruled that DeepMind unlawfully accessed 1.6 million NHS patient records.
Hassabis is also advising the prestigious Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy.
“Demis joined a Royal Society-convened effort to learn from the different approaches countries are taking to managing the pandemic, called DELVE, in a personal capacity as a Fellow of the Royal Society,” a DeepMind spokesperson said.