A British technology start-up has been bought by Google, as the American web giant looks to improve its capabilities in artificial intelligence.
DeepMind Technologies reportedly fetched more than 400 million pounds, making it Google's largest European acquisition. The British firm's technology is designed to mimic human thought processes, and has so far been used in simulations, e-commerce and games.
The firm was co-founded just two years ago by neuroscientist Demis Hassabis, a former teenage chess prodigy, with Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyma. Hassabis, 37, had an early career in video game design.
After taking his A-level exams two years early, he got a job at Bullfrog Productions, at the age of just 17. There he co-designed and led programming on the classic simulation title Theme Park with renowned game designer Peter Molyneux.
Mr Hassabis left Bullfrog to take up a place at Cambridge University, attaining a double first in computer science in 1997. Having then set up his own games developer, Elixir Studios, in 1998, he left the games sector, switching to cognitive neuroscience in order to pursue his
lifelong passion of developing artificial intelligence technology.
After attaining a doctorate from University College London in 2009, Hassabis left academia to found DeepMind Technologies in 2012. He has predicted that artificially intelligent machines will learn "basic vision, basic sound processing, basic movement control, and basic language abilities" by the end of the decade.
DeepMind claims to have the backing of "some of the most iconic technology entrepreneurs and investors of the past decade" including US Telsa mogul Elon Musk, early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, teenage British app developer Nick D'Aloisio, and Skype co-developer Jaan Tallinn. The company is based in east London and employs around 75 people.
Google has not revealed any plans for DeepMind, but technology publication The Information said the deal has prompted it to set up an ethics board to ensure the technology is not abused. It added that Facebook was in serious acquisition talks with DeepMind last year, but the talks fell apart.
The move is the latest in a string of technology acquisitions that hint at Google's growing interest in artificial intelligence. It bought several robotics companies last year, including US-based Boston Dynamics, which develops robots resembling animals and has strong links to the military.
In 2012, the internet giant hired Ray Kurzweil, considered one of the leading minds in the field, and in May it announced a partnership with Nasa and several universities to launch the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab.
According to analysts at research firm Gartner, the continuous push in artificial intelligence (which began in the 1960s) is on the cusp of delivering extremely useful and practical capabilities that can benefit almost everyone.
Google's founders have long been interested in artificial intelligence. Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin have said that their ultimate aim is for Google Search to become 'AI-complete', meaning that it will be just as intelligent as a human, and Page is believed to have led the acquisition of DeepMind himself.
Google is already actively developing virtual personal assistants, based on its "knowledge graph" - a database of more than 570m people, places and things, and 18bn connections between them. It is thought that the company's intention is to improve search to the point where the search engine knows the user and is able to deliver the right answer, whether they have asked for it or not.
Google estimates that its knowledge graph is only 3% to 4% complete and is using "deep learning" and similar technologies operating on data from the billions of daily searches it receives to automatically build and refine it.
It is thought that the acquisition of DeepMind will play into Google's development of its knowledge graph - particularly with regard to language processing technology, which can not only recognise natural speech but also interpret questions.
"All major players in linguistically smart applications are building or extending these constructs called knowledge graphs," said Gartner analyst Tom Austin in a recent report. "Google currently has some special advantages by virtue of its scale, reach and share of devices and platforms."