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Amazon ML chief departs to take up DeepMind professorship at Cambridge

One of Amazon’s most senior computer scientists has left the company to join Cambridge University as its first DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning.

Professor Neil Lawrence was appointed to the new role following an “international” recruitment search, according to Cambridge. He had served as a director of machine learning at Amazon UK since 2016.

Plans for the professorship emerged last year after DeepMind, an AI research company owned by Google, gave Cambridge nearly £4m. Data obtained by NS Tech under freedom of information laws reveals that £3.5m was allocated to the position, while a further £290,000 was donated to support a series of PhD positions in the computer science department, and masters places for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Over the last two years, DeepMind has given generously to its co-founders’ alma maters. The company has funded a professorship and research positions at UCL – where Demis Hassabis and Shane Legg met as researchers – and research and studentships at the University of Oxford – where its third co-founder Mustafa Suleyman studied before dropping out. Hassabis was an undergraduate at Cambridge. 

The funding spree came as tech companies including DeepMind faced criticism for poaching legions of researchers from top universities. Lawrence himself had been a professor at the University of Sheffield before he joined Amazon, and has said his move to Cambridge involved “quite a big pay cut”.

Some academics have expressed concern about the increasing number of British university departments taking funding from tech firms. When the position was announced last year, Cambridge stressed that DeepMind would not have any influence over who was appointed or what they would work on.

Before joining Amazon, Lawrence wrote regularly about the tech industry, coining the phrase “digital oligarchy” to describe the concentration of power in Silicon Valley firms. He studied at Southampton, Aston and Cambridge before moving to Microsoft as a postdoctoral researcher in 2000, and then returning to academia for the first time with positions at Sheffield and Manchester.

Lawrence joined Amazon in September 2016, where he led machine learning research for nearly two years, before spending a further year applying the technology within the company’s supply chain. In a statement announcing the news, he said: “There’s so much expertise at Cambridge, in all aspects of systems and data: that’s why I’m so excited about joining.

“AI and machine learning have the potential to reshape almost every aspect of our lives, but we desperately need more machine learning specialists, or else the promise of AI will not be realised.”

Demis Hassabis, the co-founder and chief executive of DeepMind, added: “I’m delighted to see Cambridge announce its first DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning. Professor Lawrence’s work in computational biology and his thoughtful advocacy for advancing technology in the developing world have been commendable.

“It’s an honour for DeepMind to be able to support the Department of Computer Science and Technology – from which I gained so much – in this way, and I look forward to seeing machine learning and AI flourish at Cambridge.”

Lawrence will remain a visiting professor at the University of Sheffield.