Home Money Perplexity’s Founder Was Inspired by Sundar Pichai. Now They’re Competing to Reinvent Search

Perplexity’s Founder Was Inspired by Sundar Pichai. Now They’re Competing to Reinvent Search

by Elijah
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Perplexity's Founder Was Inspired by Sundar Pichai. Now They’re Competing to Reinvent Search

Aravind Srinivas thanks Google CEO Sundar Pichai for giving him the freedom to eat eggs.

Srinivas remembers the moment an interview with Pichai surfaced on his YouTube feed seven years ago. His vegetarian upbringing in India had excluded eggs, as was the case for many in the country, but now in his early 20s, Srinivas wanted to eat more protein. Here was Pichai, a hero to many aspiring entrepreneurs in India, casually describing his morning: waking up, reading newspapers, drinking tea and eating an omelet.

Srinivas shared the video with his mother. Okay, she said: You can eat eggs.

Pichai’s influence extends far beyond Srinivas’ diet. He is also CEO of a search company called Perplexity AI, one of the most hyped apps of the generative AI era. Srinivas still takes cues from Pichai, the leader of the world’s largest search engine, but his admiration is more complicated.

“It’s like a rivalry now,” says Srinivas. “It’s awkward.”

Srinivas and Pichai both grew up in Chennai, India, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, although the two were born 22 years apart. By the time Srinivas was working on his doctorate in computer science at UC Berkeley, Pichai had been crowned CEO of Google.

Before his first research internship, Srinivas worked at Google-owned DeepMind in London. Pichai also got a new job that year, becoming CEO of both Alphabet and Google. Srinivas found work at DeepMind stimulating, but he was dismayed to discover that the flat he had rented sight unseen was a disaster – a “crappy house, with rats,” he says – so he sometimes slept in DeepMind’s offices.

He discovered a book in the office library about the development and evolution of Google called At the Plex, written by WIRED editor Steven Levy. Srinivas read it again and again, increasing his appreciation for Google and its innovations. “Larry and Sergey became my entrepreneurial heroes,” says Srinivas. (He offered to mention In the Plex’s quoting chapters and passages from memory; WIRED believed his word.)

Soon after, in 2020, Srinivas landed as a research intern at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, working on machine learning for computer vision. Srinivas slowly made his way through the Google universe and put some of his AI research work to good use.

Then in 2022, Srinivas and three co-founders – Denis Yarats, Johnny Ho and Andy Konwinski – collaborated to develop a new approach to search using AI. They started working on algorithms that could translate natural language into the database language SQL, but concluded that this was too limited (or nerdy). Instead, they opted for a product that combined a traditional search index with the relatively new power of large language models. They called it Bewilderment.

Perplexity is sometimes described as a ‘response’ engine rather than a search engine, because of the way it uses AI text generation to summarize results. New searches create topics of conversation on a particular topic. Type a question and Perplexity responds with follow-up questions, asking you to refine your question. It eschews direct links in favor of text-based or visual answers that don’t require you to click elsewhere to get information.

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