GOOGLE’S HEAVY INVESTMENT in artificial intelligence has helped the company’s software write music and beat humans at complex board games. What unlikely feats could be next? The company’s new head of AI says he’d like to see Google move deeper into areas such as healthcare. He also warns that the company will face some tricky ethical questions over appropriate uses for AI as it expands its use of the technology.
The new AI boss at Google is Jeff Dean. The lean 50-year-old computer scientist joined the company in 1999, when it was a startup less than one year old. He earned a reputation as one of the industry’s most talented coders by helping Google become a computational powerhouse with new approaches to databases and large-scale data analysis. Google colleagues once created a joke website of “Jeff Dean facts,” including his purported role in accelerating the speed of light. Another had it that Dean doesn’t really exist—he’s an advanced AI created by Jeff Dean.
Dean helped ignite Silicon Valley’s AI boom when he joined Google’s secretive X lab in 2011 to investigate an approach to machine learning known as deep neural networks. The project produced software that learned to recognize cats on YouTube. Google went on to use deep neural networks to greatly improve the accuracy of its speech recognition service, and has since made the technique the heart of the company’s strategy for just about everything.
The cat-video project morphed into a research group called Google Brain, which Dean has led since 2012. He ascended to head the company’s AI efforts early this month after John Giannandrea left to lead Apple’s AI projects.
Dean’s new job puts him at the helm of perhaps the world’s foremost AI research operation. The group churns out research papers on topics such as creating more realistic synthetic voices and teaching robots to grasp objects.