Demis Hassabis is the video game designer whose company, DeepMind, may just have cracked a conundrum that’s been bothering the scientific community for over 50 years. In the process, he’s opened the door to cures for everything from COVID to cancer. How? By applying the values of chess to science and having the kind of brain that allowed him to win a place at Cambridge University at the age of just 15. Find out more about the DeepMind CEO with these 10 things you didn’t know about Demis Hassabis.
1. He was a chess prodigy
At the age of four, Hassabis watched a game of chess between his father and uncle. Intrigued, he set about learning the game himself. Just 2 weeks later, he was winning every match he played. By the age of 5, he’d taken his talents to the national stage. By the age of 6, he’d won the trophy at the London under-eights championships. And so it continued. At 9, he captained England’s under-11 team; at 13, he reached the status of Master with an Elo rating of 2300; between 1995 and 1997, he represented the University of Cambridge in the Oxford-Cambridge varsity chess matches. And then he quit. Speaking to The Times about his decision to pack it in, Hassabis explained that he realized he was more interested in what chess had taught him about his own thought processes than he was in the game itself: “It got me into thinking about the process of thought,” he explained. “What is intelligence, how is my brain coming up with these ideas?”
2. He bought his first computer when he was 8
Hassabis was just 8 years old when he bought his first computer – a £200 ZX Spectrum that he funded with the winnings of a chess match. “The amazing thing about computers in those days is you could just start programming them,” he’s since recalled to Wired. “I’d go with my dad to Foyles, and sit in the computer-programming department to learn how to give myself infinite lives in games. I intuitively understood that this was a magical device which you could unleash your creativity on.”
3. His family are technophobes
Considering his career, you’d have assumed that Hassabis comes from a family of tech whizzes. You’d be wrong. His brother and sister have followed very different paths (his sister is a pianist and composer, while his brother is studying creative writing), while his parents are self-proclaimed ‘technophobes.’ “They don’t really like computers,” he’s said in an interview with The Guardian. “They’re kind of bohemian. My sister and brother both went the artistic route, too. None of them really went in for math or science … it’s weird, I’m not quite sure where all this came from.”
4. He was accepted into Cambridge at 15
It wasn’t only chess Hassabis excelled at as a child. The standard age to complete A-Levels in the UK is 18: Hassabis had them done and dusted by the time he was 15. He was accepted into Cambridge University at the age of 16, but they told him that 16 was still a little young for university and he’d be better off deferring his acceptance for a couple of years. He eventually graduated from the university in 1997 with a Double First in Computer Science Tripos.
5. He started his career at 15
If his success at chess wasn’t enough to convince Hassabis’s parents that they had a prodigy on their hands, his move into business at the age of 15 was. The teenage Hassabis’s first step on the career ladder came with a position at Bullfrog Productions. He landed the position after winning a job competition run by Amiga Power magazine. During his time with the studio, he co-designed the video game ‘Theme Park’ alongside Peter Molyneux. ‘Theme Park’ proved the first in a series of successes, shifting over ten million units and landing a Golden Joystick Award.
6. He’s a CBE
If there one thing Hassabis isn’t lacking, it’s awards. For the past two decades, Hassabis has been winning trophies, honors, and titles left, right, and center. In 2017, he achieved the ultimate accolade of being appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2018 New Year Honors for “services to Science and Technology.” Some of his other honors include a mention on the Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs – Science Magazine (2007); a fellowship with the Royal Society of Arts (2009); and awards for Digital Entrepreneur of the Year – Financial Times (2016), Leadership in Innovation – Wired (2016), UKtech50 – Computer Weekly (2019), and the Dan David Prize (2020).
7. He’s an expert gamer
At the age of 13, Hassabis won the title of Chess Master with ELO rating of 2300. But his talents in the gaming arena don’t stop there. In 2004, he has announced the World Team Champion at Diplomacy. in 2004, he came in 4th at the World Championship, and in 2006, he won 3rd prize at the European Championship. He’s also a dab hand at poker, having cashed at the World Series of Poker six times. To top it off, he’s a five-time World Pentamind Champion and a two-time World Decamentathlon Champion.
8. He established DeepMind in 2010
In 2010, Hassabis co-founded DeepMind alongside Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman. It quickly developed into a leading AI research center, spitting out software capable of doing everything from beating humans at chess to painting very attractive landscapes. But while those achievements were all very impressive, they weren’t exactly game-changing from a global perspective. But right from the start, Hassabis was adamant that AI was capable of more. Thanks to its most recent breakthrough, he’s been proved right.
9. He thinks AI is the savior of humanity
Hassabis has made no bones of his belief that AI is ‘ humanity’s savior.’ DeepMind’s recent uncovering of the secret behind the ‘protein folding problem’ – a problem that kept scientists baffled for over 50 years – shows it might well be. As The Daily Mail writes, DeepMind’s uncovering of how a protein’s amino acid sequence dictates its 3D atomic structure could help usher in breakthroughs in everything from cancer to COVID.
10. He thinks kids should be allowed to play games
Hassabis started his career in video games. He may have come a long way since, but it’s clear that gaming still holds a place in his heart. Asked by the BBC about whether he shared other parent’s caution at letting their kids have ‘screen time’ (Hassabis is now a father of three), he made his position clear. “I definitely think there’s no harm in playing games,” he said. “It’s a gateway. Many children start by playing games, like I did, and then getting into programming and then using this incredible tool, the computer, to create things.”