Is Demis Hassabis' presence on SAGE a conflict of interest?

He’s one of Britain’s most brilliant minds, but isn’t his presence on the Government’s emergency science committee a massive conflict of interest?

Demis Hassabis is one of the world’s leading minds on artificial intelligence. A child chess prodigy, video game developer and neuroscientist.

On Monday it was confirmed that he sat on the government’s independent science advisory body SAGE (The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). And surely, for a government in need of diverse and intelligent advice during a global pandemic, few scientists are better placed to give it? But Dr Hassabis is not an 'independent’ scientist.

Deepmind, the AI company he founded in 2010, was sold in its entirety to Google in 2014, with Dr Hassabis remaining as its CEO. This means one of the world’s most powerful companies may have a direct line to confidential strategic data on the UK epidemic and the advice being given to Government.

The minutes of the SAGE (The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) are not being shared with the public. However, it now appears what the group discusses, could potentially be shared with Google.

Demis Hassabis. Credit: PA

According to the list of SAGE members published on Monday by government, Dr Hassabis’ sits on the committee in a “personal capacity as a data scientist". But it is not yet clear what measures have been put in place to guard against any potential conflict of interest.

In a statement Google’s Deepmind told ITV News: “Demis attended one SAGE meeting on March 18th”. It added that Dr Hassabis joined a Royal Society convened committee called DELVE in a personal capacity as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Dr Hassabis is the only scientist on the list of 50 SAGE participants who doesn’t have an academic, government or not-for-profit affiliation.

The membership of SAGE hit the headlines recently when it was revealed that Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to the Prime Minister, was sitting on the committee. There were complaints about political influence over, supposedly, independent science advice — but not just among the government’s political opponents. Former Chief Science Advisor Sir David King was vocal in his criticism has now resorted to setting up a an alternative “SAGE” body.

In a statement a spokesperson for the Government Office of Science said:"Demis attended one meeting and he was there in his capacity as a Royal Society fellow. His attendance at the meeting was also with a focus on assisting UK efforts to look at international comparisons."

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