Inflection AI, the machine learning startup headed by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and founding DeepMind member Mustafa Suleyman, has secured $225 million in equity financing, according to a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The source of the capital isn’t yet clear — Inflection didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information — but the massive round suggests strong investor confidence in Suleyman, who serves as the company’s CEO.
Palo Alto, California-based Inflection has kept a low profile to date, granting relatively few interviews to the media. But in a CNBC profile from January, Suleyman described wanting to build products that eliminate the need for people to simplify their ideas to communicate with machines, with the overarching goal being to leverage AI to help humans “talk” to computers.
“[Programming languages, mice, and other interfaces] are ways we simplify our ideas and reduce their complexity and in some ways their creativity and their uniqueness in order to get a machine to do something,” Suleyman told the publication. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of being able to generate language to pretty much human-level performance. It opens up a whole new suite of things that we can do in the product space.”
The concept of translating human intentions into a language computers can understand dates back decades. Even the best chatbots and voice assistants today haven’t delivered on the promise, but Suleyman and Hoffman are betting that coming advancements in AI will make an intuitive human-computer interface possible within the next five years.
They’ll have competition. Just last month, Adept, a startup co-founded by former DeepMind, OpenAI and Google engineers and researchers, emerged from stealth with a similar concept: AI that can automate any software process. DeepMind itself has explored an approach for teaching AI to control computers, having an AI observe keyboard and mouse commands from people completing “instruction-following” computer tasks, such as booking a flight.
Regardless, the size of Inflection’s funding round reflects the high cost of building sophisticated AI systems. OpenAI is estimated to have spent millions of dollars developing GPT-3, the company’s system that can generate human-like text given a prompt. Anthropic, another startup developing cutting-edge AI models, recently raised over half a billion to — in co-founder Dario Amodei’s words — “explore the predictable scaling properties of machine learning systems.”
AI expertise doesn’t come cheap, either, particularly in the midst of a talent shortage. In 2018, a tax file spotted by the New York Times revealed that OpenAI paid its top researcher, Ilya Sutskever, more than $1.9 million in 2016. Inflection recently poached AI experts from Google and Meta, CNBC reported in March.
“Even at the bigger tech companies, there’s a relatively small number of people actually building these [AI] models. One of the advantages of doing this in a startup is that we can go much faster and be more dynamic,” Suleyman told CNBC. “My experience of building many, many teams over the last 15 years is that there is this golden moment when you really have a very close-knit, small, focused team. I’m going to try and preserve that for as long as possible.”
A cloud surrounds Inflection, somewhat, following reports that Suleyman allegedly bullied staff members at Google, where he worked after being placed on administrative leave at DeepMind for controversy surrounding some of his projects. Google launched an investigation into his behavior at the time, according to the Wall Street Journal, but it never made its findings public.