Google is going deeper into intelligence. According to news reports, the technology giant has paid in the vicinity of $400 million to buy artificial intelligence start-up DeepMind Technologies. On its one-page Web site, the London-based DeepMind describes itself as a "cutting edge" AI company, combining techniques from "machine learning and systems neuroscience to build powerful general-purpose learning algorithms."
Little else is known about what the company does, except that it has high-profile investors, has demonstrated technology in which computers play video games in ways similar to human responses, and has a co-founder who was a child chess prodigy: neuroscientist and former games programmer Demis Hassabis. The young company is said to have about four dozen employees and more than $50 million in investment funding.
But DeepMind's technology is apparently powerful enough that Google has, according to theinformation.com, created an ethics board to make sure the capability is not abused. Facebook was reportedly also in talks to buy the company, but Google won out.
If human responses and interaction could be convincingly delivered by an AI system, a milestone in the history of computing could be reached -- passing Alan Turing's famous threshold for computer intelligence, the point at which a machine's performance is indistinguishable from a human.
Google in London has told news media that the DeepMind technology will be used for improving search results and Google Translate, among other products.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, told us the technology could also be used to "improve the heuristics in their advertising software." He pointed out that, while the company's other products -- and such far-reaching endeavors as self-driving cars -- might be obvious beneficiaries, the company's advertising business is still its money engine.
Google has been on a tear in buying up high-tech companies in the last two years, dropping more than $17 billion to do so. Earlier this month, it spent $3.2 billion to buy Nest Labs, which makes intelligent thermostats and smoke alarms for homes and businesses.
Last month, it acquired Boston Dynamics, known for its four-legged walking robots. In the last year or so, Google has also acquired other robotics companies, including Schaft, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Bot & Dolly, Meka Robotics, and Holomni.
In March, Google bought a Canadian start-up that specialized in neural net technology, called DNNresearch. It was a spinoff of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, had been incorporated the year before, and had a three-person team. That purchase was viewed largely as intending to acquire the personnel involved, including University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton. Hinton was also the founder of a neuroscience lab at University College in London, and specializes in speech recognition, computer vision and language understanding.
In October of 2012, Google bough Viewdle, an imaging and gesture recognition company, through its Motorola Mobility unit.