Influential Google Researcher Leaves To Co-Found ‘Sakana AI’

fish sakana unsplash

Former Google researcher Llion Jones, co-author of influential paper on machine learning transformers, leaves to co-found Sakana AI in Tokyo

A former Google AI researcher who co-authored a key paper that influenced the current generative artificial intelligence craze has left the company to help found a start-up based in Tokyo.

Llion Jones, originally from Wales, left Google earlier in August to set up Sakana AI with David Ha, the former head of Google’s Japanese AI research unit.

Ha, who left Google last year to lead research at image AI firm Stability AI, is to serve as Sakana’s chief executive, while Jones is chief technology officer.

Jones was one of eight co-authors of a pivotal research paper called “Attention is All You Need”, originally published in June 2017, which underpinned the rise of a machine learning model called the transformer, the basis for current generative AIs such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

David Ha Llion Jones Sakana AI Image credit David Ha
Image credit: David Ha

AI competition

All eight of the co-authors have since left Google, most to found their own start-ups amidst a surge of investor interest in the AI field kicked off by ChatGPT. Jones was the last to leave.

Sakana AI plans to build a generative AI of its own in the face of intense and well-funded competition from tech giants such as Microsoft – which announced a $10 billion (£7.8bn) multi-year investment deal with OpenAI in January – and Google itself, as well as Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba and Baidu, in addition to start-ups such as Cohere, and Anthropic.

Cohere and have carried out funding rounds in recent months that value them respectively at $2bn and $1bn.

Ha and Jones said that most companies are creating AIs that conceived as brittle, unchanging structures, while Sakana is taking its cue from natural forms that adapt organically to changing conditions.

Natural forms

The start-up’s name derives from the Japanese word for “fish”, with the co-founders saying they seek to evoke the idea of a school of fish that comes together and moves as a coherent entity.

Jones said he found Google’s approach overly restrictive, telling CNBC that “the bureaucracy had built to the point where I just felt like I couldn’t get anything done”.

Ha said OpenAI, while a start-up, depends upon the billions it has raised from Microsoft and has become “big and bureaucratic” like groups within Google.

The co-founders, who have been based in Tokyo for several years, said they chose the city for Sakana AI due to the ready availability of researchers and technical infrastructure.

The city also provides them with the opportunity to train models that work well in non-Western societies and culture, which they told the Financial Times would be “a catalyst in the next technological breakthrough”.