Q+A With Jeff Dean: The Brain Behind Google’s Artificial Intelligence

October 18, 2016
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Peter High


Jeff Dean was one of the earliest employees of the company, having joined in 1999 after receiving his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Washington three years earlier. He has been a prominent figure in the company’s growth, having designed and implemented much of the distributed computing infrastructure that supports most of Google’s products.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said that Google will become an artificial intelligence company primarily, and as the Senior Fellow in the Systems and Infrastructure Group, Dean and his team are essential to making that happen. In this far-ranging interview, Dean describes his various roles across the Google, the company’s AI vision, his thoughts on how Google has maintained an entrepreneurial spirit despite being a technology giant, as well as a variety of other topics.

(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please click this link.This is the tenth interview in my artificial intelligence series. Please visit these links to interviews with Mike Rhodan of IBM Watson, Sebastian Thrun of Udacity, Scott Phoneix of Vicarious, Antoine Blondeau of Sentient Technologies, Greg Brockman of OpenAI, Oren Etzioni of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Neil Jacobstein of Singularity University, Geoff Hinton of Google, and Nick Bostrom of Oxford University.

Peter High: Jeff Dean, you have been with Google for most of its history, having joined the company in 1999. Please give a brief depiction of the evolution of your roles across the company in the seventeen years since.

Jeff Dean: When I joined, the company was quite small. We were all wedged in a small office on University Avenue in Palo Alto. One of the first main things I worked on was building one of our first advertising systems. I then spent four or five years working on the crawling, indexing, and search systems used on every query at Google. After that, I worked mostly with my colleague Sanjay Ghemawat and others on building the software infrastructure that Google uses to store and process large data sets and do things like build search indices or process satellite imagery. More recently, I have been working on machine learning systems.

High: Given how broad your purview is and how expansive your role is, I imagine you do not have an “average day.” How do you determine who to interact with inside or outside of the company? I would be interested to know a little bit about how you spend your time on the different things you are working on at present.

Dean: There is no typical day. For the first fourteen or fifteen years, I did not take on any management roles, so that gave me more free time to just focus and write code. In the last couple of years, I have taken on a management role over some of the machine learning efforts, which has been an interesting and new learning experience for me.  Since I have worked on a lot of things over the history of the company, and I like to stay in touch with what is going on in those different projects, I tend to get a lot of emails. I spend a fair amount of time dealing with email, mostly deleting them or skimming them to get a sense of what is going on.I have a few technical projects that I am working on at any given time and figure out how to spend my day there, interspersed with various meetings or design review types of things.

High: Google remains a paragon of innovation, despite its dramatic growth. It is ambitious and innovative like it was when it was a smaller organization, but now it has the resources – both human and financial—of a behemoth within the tech space. How does the organization fight stasis and bureaucracy so that it can remain much nimbler than its size would suggest?

To read the rest of the article, please visit Forbes

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