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Mustafa Suleyman: the new head of Microsoft AI with concerns about his trade

Like many artificial intelligence pioneers, Mustafa Suleyman has expressed concerns about a technology he has played an important role in developing.

Speaking at the global AI safety summit last year, the 39-year-old Briton said there might have to be a pause in development towards the end of the decade. “I don’t rule it out. And I think that at some point over the next five years or so, we’re going to have to consider that question very seriously,” he said.

Suleyman will now be mulling that question as the head of a new AI division within Microsoft, a superpower in the field because of its multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, the developer of the ChatGPT chatbot. In his new role, he will have to balance his caution with the drive to innovate and commercialise.

Andrew Rogoyski, of the Institute for People-Centred AI at the University of Surrey, says Suleyman’s rationale for joining Microsoft is probably straightforward. “If you’re really concerned about the safety of AI, you can shout from the sidelines and hope that somebody listens to you, or you can be in the thick of it, influencing the critical decisions in arguably the world’s leading AI company,” he said.

But like other practitioners who warn about AI’s threats, Suleyman also extols its potential. His award-nominated book The Coming Wave says emerging technologies such as AI and synthetic biology will offer “extraordinary new medical advances and clean energy breakthroughs, creating not just new businesses but new industries and quality of life improvements in almost every imaginable area”.

The flipside is that they could “present an existential threat to nation-states – risks so profound they might disrupt or even overturn the current geopolitical order”. Suleyman added: “They open pathways to immense AI-powered cyber-attacks, automated wars that could devastate countries, engineer pandemics, and a world subject to unexplainable and yet seemingly omnipotent forces.”

Suleyman will be chief executive of a new organisation called Microsoft AI, focusing on the US company’s consumer products and research, which includes the Copilot chatbot and the new Bing browser that uses the technology underlying ChatGPT. Several senior employees at Suleyman’s Inflection AI startup – which is developing generative AI tools for companies – will also join the new Microsoft division.

Suleyman was raised in north London, the son of a Syrian taxi driver and an English nurse. He dropped out of Oxford Universityat 19 and in 2010 he co-founded the AI lab DeepMind with his friends Demis Hassabis and Shane Legg.

DeepMind was bought by Google for £400m in 2014 and is now the core of Google’s AI efforts, having merged with another unit to become Google DeepMind under Hassabis’s leadership.

It was at the centre of several breakthroughs in AI – the term for computer systems that perform tasks typically associated with intelligent beings – including creating the AlphaGo AI program that defeated the world’s best player at Go, a Chinese board game, and the AlphaFold project that predicts how proteins fold into 3D shapes, a process that has paved the way for breakthroughs in areas including tackling disease.

Suleyman was placed on leave from DeepMind in 2019 after complaints about his management style – he later apologised, admitting he was “very demanding and pretty relentless” – and left Google in 2022, founding Inflection in the same year and driving the business to a $4bn valuation in 2023.

His arrival at Microsoft reflects the UK’s standing in the AI talent market. According to a report by Zeki, which researches the global AI job market, the UK itself is now importing more AI talent than it exports.

“The hiring of Mustafa Suleyman fits the longstanding trend of big US tech hiring top UK AI talent,” says Tom Hurd, Zeki’s chief executive. “But in the last two years, the UK has started to attract more top AI talent than it loses, especially top female AI scientists and engineers.”

Dame Wendy Hall, regius professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, says the news about Suleyman shows that “at the executive level there is demand for British AI talent” but complacency must not set in.

“There needs to be constant focus on early development stages and that means fostering AI and related skills such as mathematics at the school, apprenticeship, university and PhD levels.”

The Guardian
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