Google just made a key AI investment in Europe, tax investigations be damned

The ski slopes are about to get a lot nerdier.
The ski slopes are about to get a lot nerdier.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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Google is starting a research unit in Europe focused solely on machine learning, a major branch of artificial intelligence. The Zurich-based project, announced today (June 16), will be key to the company’s ambitions, as it bets big on machine learning to power its next generation of products. These include the digital assistant inside its Allo chat app, its driverless car efforts, and enhancements to its ubiquitous search engine.

The new unit, called Google Research, Europe, comes at a time when the search giant is facing serious scrutiny from European authorities. The European commission has the company in its crosshairs, as it faces two antitrust charges, over a search product and Android, which could rack up billions in fines. In France, tax authorities mounted a dramatic dawn raid of Google’s Paris office, as part of an investigation into tax dodging that could result in demands for €1.6 billion ($1.8 billion) in back taxes.

Zurich is already Google’s biggest engineering center outside its Mountain View headquarters. The team there is responsible for the conversation engine that powers Assistant in the Allo chat app, as well as Knowledge Graph, which pulls out and displays relevant information from a search result.

The new research unit will focus on machine intelligence, natural language processing, and machine perception, according to a blog post by Emmanuel Mogenet, the unit’s head. These fields hint at the possible applications that these research efforts could finally end up in. Machine intelligence could be used across Google’s suite of products. Natural language processing would aid its efforts in Allo and Gmail. And machine perception could boost its driverless car project.

We’ve asked Google how many people are on the research team, and how much money has been invested in the unit, but it said it had no comment. The only team listed on the Google Research page currently works on Google Brain, and has 34 listed members. Google Research has 979 members listed in total.

Google has another unit that’s critical to its AI efforts in Europe: DeepMind in London. DeepMind produced the history-making AlphaGo AI engine, and is currently working on ambitious–and controversial–health care efforts within the British national health care system.

Though the new office will undoubtedly be much smaller, Mogenet, the European research boss, jokingly compares it with the Googleplex, the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. ”Researchers in the Zurich office … [will be] enjoying Mountain Views of a different kind,” he writes.