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Demis Hassabis started playing chess at age 4, and soon blossomed into a child prodigy. At age 8, success on the chessboard led him to ponder two questions that have obsessed him ever since: first, how does the brain learn to master complex tasks; and second, could computers ever do the same?

Now 38, Hassabis puzzles over those questions for Google, having sold his little-known London-based startup, DeepMind, to the search company earlier this year for a reported £400 million ($650 million at the time).

Google snapped up DeepMind shortly after it demonstrated software capable of teaching itself to play classic video games to a super-human level. At the TED conference in Vancouver this year, Google CEO Larry Page gushed about Hassabis, and called his company’s technology “one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a long time.”

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