Concerns Around AI Competition Bring Co-Founder Brin Back to Google 

Add one more name to Alphabet’s staggering headcount of 170,00-plus: Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

This, as per a report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the world’s ninth richest man is rolling his sleeves back up and returning to work at the tech giant he helped found with Larry Page back in the fall of 1998.  

The reason? Artificial intelligence (AI), of course.

Particularly the critical stage Google and parent company Alphabet find themselves in as competition heats up across the broader AI landscape.

Google helped pioneer generative AI as we now know it, with a fundamental 2017 research paper from DeepMind titled “Attention Is All You Need.”

The research introduced the foundational architecture of transformer neural networks and effectively strapped a rocket ship to the technical capabilities of AI models by revolutionizing their inner workings.

Somewhat ironically, Google has been playing catch up in the AI space ever since. The paper’s groundbreaking findings inadvertently strapped a rocketship to the tech giant’s top engineers and researchers — with all eight of the paper’s authors having since left the company to work on, and found, their own nimbler AI projects free of the Mountain View stalwart’s alleged clunky bureaucracy.

But as top AI talent flees Google for areas where their work can have a more immediate impact, Brin is returning to the fold.

He is joining Alphabet’s small army of over seven thousand employees working on AI on a near-daily basis. However, per the report, Brin does not have a formalized new role beyond his emeritus status as co-founder and board member.

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Google has been slower than many of its rivals to bring AI products to market, including the equivalently sized and market-capped Microsoft, leaving the company in somewhat of a defensive position as it faces questions around its ranking within the AI power ladder — a ranking that was once believed to be ironclad.

Per the WSJ’s report, Brin has been using his time back to focus in part on personnel issues. Outside of GPUs and silicon chips, talent is one of the most critical building blocks with in AI — and as the commercialization of the technology catches fire, top AI researchers (of the kind Google is losing) are increasingly harder and harder to find.

Google’s slow but steady exodus of some of its most talented researchers and scientists has been a boon for the AI landscape more broadly, with many of them going on to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for their own startups, including the firms Cohere and Character.AI, which have helped move generative AI from the ivory tower and business laboratory to the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of users.

But many of them now represent an increasingly direct, if not existential, threat to Alphabet’s own AI goals.

Around half of the employees of Elon Musk’s newly announced xAI startup previously worked at Google, and the search engine titan is also losing luminaries, including AI pioneer Dr. Geoffrey Hinton who resigned from Google’s AI team to “speak freely” about his concerns of the technology without having them reflect back upon the tech company specifically.

A common thread among the growing departures is the friction caused by Google’s massive size and position within the marketplace, making it harder for individuals to have an immediate, scalable impact or work in an agility-first setting.

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Bringing Brin Back

“The new spring in artificial intelligence is the most significant development in computing in my lifetime,” Bring wrote back in 2017, in the first annual letter he, and not Larry Page, signed since 2014.  

Per the report, Brin has been working closely with the team tasked with building Google’s general-purpose AI program, Gemini — meant to rival the foundational model powering OpenAI’s paid product.

Per the report, Brin has needed to catch up with some of AI’s latest and greatest developments. Though one of the most respected computer scientists of the last century, responsible with his co-founder Larry Page for Google’s transformative PageRank work, Brin has not been a significant contributor to coding projects in some time.

The frequency and intensity of Brin’s new involvement in the company he co-founded is a marked shift from the relatively hands-off approach he took after handing of the reins of Alphabet to present CEO of both Alphabet and Google, Sundar Pichai.

But it’s difficult to enjoy your billions when there is business to be done.