BBC's Across the Board: Demis Hassabis

by Albert Silver
11/4/2014 – Wikipedia describes Demis Hassabis as "a British artificial intelligence researcher, neuroscientist, computer game designer, and world-class games player." While accurate, this doesn't begin to do him justice. At 13 he was second in chess only to Judit Polgar, at age 17 he designed a hit video game. He now sold his company DeepMind to Google to work on Artificial Intelligence.

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As a reminder to the readers and listeners, the format of the show is this: On the radio they play a quick rapid game during which Lawson interviews his guest on both chess and other matters. In the first season only one of the personalities was actually a chess player, Hou Yifan, while the others were all noted figures in their fields and all are chess aficionados. The shows are edited, and also bring in GM Daniel King to the commentary booth as he provides a little insight on the flow of the game and his feel for the position.

Demis Hassabis is self-taught in chess and at age 13 was second in the world in his age group with 2300 FIDE, just 35 Elo behind Judit Polgar. He bought his first computer at age eight, and at age seventeen was the co-designer of the hit computer simulation game. He left the software company to get a degree in math and computer science, founded another computer gaming company 'Elixir', and finally left the video game industry for good, switching to cognitive science. He returned to academia and obtained a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience in 2009. During his stay in academia, he published a paper in 2007 called "Patients with hippocampal amnesia cannot imagine new experiences", which was cited by the journal Science as one of the top ten scientific breakthroughs of the year in any field.

In 2011, he left academia to co-found DeepMind Technologies, a London-based machine learning startup. In January 2014 DeepMind was acquired by Google for a reported £400 million, where Hassabis is now an Engineering Director leading their general AI projects.

The DeepMind website is now hiring: "If you are an exceptional machine learning researcher,
computational neuroscientist or software engineer, and want to be part of a world-class team
working on the most exciting ground-breaking technology anywhere, in an inspiring and
collaborative environment, then please get in touch.

Hassabis won the world games championship (called the 'Pentamind') at the Mind Sports Olympiad a record five times, prior to his retirement from competitive play in 2003, and at the time was regarded as the best all-round games player in the world, as an expert player of many games including chess, Diplomacy, shogi and poker. He has cashed at the World Series of Poker six times including in the Main Event. (source: Wikipedia)

Dominic Lawson - Why did you give up chess, when you'd reached such a great strength at such an early age?

Demis Hassabis - Well, when I was around eleven years old, around the peak of my chess playing career, I kind of realized that it felt like chess was an incredible game, and something that is great for training the mind, I didn't feel comfortable spending my whole life on something as narrow as chess.

So it wasn't that you had some insight that you couldn't be the best in the world, because you strike me as someone who is intensely ambitious. Was that feeling also in your mind?

No, when I was around 11-12 years old, the only higher rated player than me was Judit Polgar and she was about 35 Elo points higher than me. So, it was certainly the intention at that time, during my earlier chess career, to become the best player in the world. Perhaps I could have made it, who knows? I felt that it was possible. So it wasn't really about that. It feels quite self-indulgent in some way to spend your whole mind and all your brain and all your talents on just beating another human opponent. It doesn't produce anything more than that. I think chess a fascinating game and I love playing it, but you mostly use games as a training ground, like a gym for the mind, and I then transfer those skills to other domains: science and business and so on.

Demis Hassabis

Dominic Lawson vs Demis Hassabis

[Event "BBC Radio 4 - Across the Board"] [Site "?"] [Date "2014.10.31"] [Round "?"] [White "Lawson, Dominic"] [Black "Hassabis, Demis"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B51"] [BlackElo "2249"] [PlyCount "78"] [EventDate "2014.??.??"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 d6 4. O-O Bd7 5. Re1 a6 6. Bf1 Nf6 7. c3 e5 8. d4 cxd4 9. cxd4 Bg4 10. d5 Nd4 11. Nc3 Be7 12. Be3 Nxf3+ 13. gxf3 Bd7 14. f4 Ng4 15. fxe5 dxe5 16. d6 Bg5 17. Bxg5 Qxg5 18. Bg2 Qf4 19. Qf3 Qxh2+ 20. Kf1 Qh6 21. Kg1 O-O 22. Red1 b5 23. Rac1 Rad8 24. Nd5 b4 25. Ne7+ Kh8 26. Rc7 Qh2+ 27. Kf1 Bb5+ 28. Ke1 Qg1+ 29. Kd2 Rxd6+ 30. Nd5 Qxf2+ 31. Qxf2 Nxf2 32. Rdc1 Nd3 33. Rc8 Rfd8 34. Rxd8+ Rxd8 35. Rh1 h6 36. b3 Nf4 37. Bf1 Bxf1 38. Rxf1 Nxd5 39. exd5 Rxd5+ 0-1

Why did you sell out to Google rather than continue as an independent trailblazer? Presumably it wasn't just about the money.

No, it was nothing to do with the money actually, so my plan was never to sell. It was to sort of build a Google-sized enterprise myself. The only problem with that is that trying to build AI and trying to build a multi-ten billion dollar company... I'd started to come to the realization maybe last year that maybe doing both in one lifetime is potentially impossible. Google and Larry Page particularly convinced me that I could accelerate the mission by becoming part of Google and utilizing the resources in terms of compute power and engineers and data that Google has.

The shows can be listened to live, or later at the website

To listen to the full broadcast, visit the BBC Radio 4 website where all episodes are archived.

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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