Reid Hoffman, author, businessman and co-founder of the networking platform ‘LinkedIn’, speaks at the DLD (Digital-Life-Design) Conference in Munich, Germany, 19 January 2015.
LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman has co-founded a new artificial intelligence start-up called Inflection AI with DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman and former DeepMind researcher Karén Simonyan.
It is the first time Hoffman has co-founded a company since he sold LinkedIn to Microsoft for $26.2 billion in 2016. It is also the first company Suleyman has co-founded since he sold DeepMind to Google in 2014 for around $600 million.
Inflection will be led by Suleyman, who will take on the role of CEO.
“AI is one of the most transformative technologies of our time,” Hoffman said in a statement shared with CNBC. “Mustafa has been at the forefront of some of the most exciting advances in artificial intelligence. It’s a privilege to join him and Karen in building Inflection.”
The announcement of Inflection, shared exclusively with CNBC, comes just a few weeks after Suleyman said he was quitting his VP role at Google to work alongside Hoffman at Greylock Partners, a renowned venture capital firm that invested in the likes of Facebook (now Meta) and Airbnb. The entrepreneurs have known each other for almost 10 years.
Before joining Google, Suleyman co-founded DeepMind in London with childhood friend Demis Hassabis and New Zealander Shane Legg in 2010.
In the lead-up to the Google acquisition, Suleyman helped DeepMind to raise millions of dollars from billionaires including Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. He also led the company’s applied AI efforts for several years both pre- and post-acquisition.
What is Inflection?
Headquartered in Silicon Valley, Inflection will aim to develop AI software products that make it easier for humans to communicate with computers.
“If you think about the history of computing, we have always been trying to reduce the complexity of our ideas in order to communicate them to a machine,” Suleyman told CNBC on a call Monday.
“Even when we write a search query, we’re simplifying, we’re reducing or we’re writing in shorthand so that the search engine can understand what we want.”
DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman
When humans want to control a computer, they need to learn a programming language in order to provide instructions, he added, or use a mouse to navigate and engage with things on the screen. “All of these are ways we simplify our ideas and reduce their complexity and in some ways their creativity and their uniqueness in order to get a machine to do something,” Suleyman said.
The British entrepreneur claimed a new suite of technologies that Inflection will aim to develop will eventually enable anyone to speak to a computer in plain language.
It’s unclear at this stage who Inflection will sell its products to, at what price, and when.
Human-machine interaction has advanced significantly over the last decade and many people now speak to AI-powered virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa on a daily basis.
While the conversations are still far from fluid, computer scientists believe it’s only a matter of time before the experience becomes more seamless as machines get better at generating their own language.
“It feels like we’re on the cusp of being able to generate language to pretty much human-level performance,” Suleyman said, adding that he believes it will almost certainly be possible within five years. “It opens up a whole new suite of things that we can do in the product space.”
One of the most notable language-generating AI models is OpenAI’s GPT-3 but tech giants including Google, Meta and Microsoft are building their own systems.
Asked how he plans to compete with the armies of researchers and engineers at these firms, Suleyman said a small group of talented individuals can have a huge impact.
“Even at the bigger tech companies, there’s a relatively small number of people actually building these (AI) models,” he said. “One of the advantages of doing this in a start-up is that we can go much faster and be more dynamic.”
He added: “My experience of building many, many teams over the last 15 years is that there is this golden moment when you really have a very close knit, small focused team. I’m going to try and preserve that for as long as possible.”
Simonyan, Inflection’s chief scientist, sold his first start-up to DeepMind and was involved in some of the lab’s biggest breakthroughs including AlphaZero and AlphaFold. He left DeepMind to join Inflection in the last few weeks.
Greylock told CNBC that it is investing in Inflection but it declined to say how much.
The venture firm also plans to “incubate” the company, providing it with marketing, introductions to technology leaders and hiring support.
Hoffman will maintain his full-time role at Greylock.
In August 2019, Suleyman announced on Twitter that he was stepping away from DeepMind, adding that he needed a “break to recharge.” Less than half a year later, in December 2019, he announced that he was officially leaving the AI lab he helped to build to join Google as VP of AI product management and AI policy.
The full circumstances of Suleyman’s departure from DeepMind weren’t disclosed at the time, but it later emerged that a number of his colleagues had taken issue with his management style, accusing him of harassment and bullying. In January 2021, DeepMind announced it had brought in a law firm to investigate his management style.
“I had a period in 2017-2018 where a couple of colleagues made a complaint about my management style” Suleyman said on a podcast in January where he was interviewed by Hoffman. “You know, I really screwed up. I was very demanding and pretty relentless. I think that at times that created an environment where I basically had pretty unreasonable expectations of what people were to be delivering and when.”
When Suleyman announced he was joining Greylock, one VC, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the discussion, questioned how long he would remain a VC for. “My gut says that it’s temporary while he looks for the next company to build or join as a founder,” they told CNBC. “I think he has more left in the tank.”
Suleyman said that while Inflection will take up the majority of his time, he plans to carry on investing with Greylock.