8 Google Employees Invented Modern AI. Here’s the Inside Story

They met by chance, got hooked on an idea, and wrote the “Transformers” paper—the most consequential tech breakthrough in recent history.

by Steven Levy at Wired: Eight names are listed as authors on “Attention Is All You Need,” a scientific paper written in the spring of 2017. They were all Google researchers, though by then one had left the company. When the most tenured contributor, Noam Shazeer, saw an early draft, he was surprised that his name appeared first, suggesting his contribution was paramount. “I wasn’t thinking about it,” he says.

It’s always a delicate balancing act to figure out how to list names—who gets the coveted lead position, who’s shunted to the rear. Especially in a case like this one, where each participant left a distinct mark in a true group effort. As the researchers hurried to finish their paper, they ultimately decided to “sabotage” the convention of ranking contributors. They added an asterisk to each name and a footnote: “Equal contributor,” it read. “Listing order is random.” The writers sent the paper off to a prestigious artificial intelligence conference just before the deadline—and kicked off a revolution.


Approaching its seventh anniversary, the “Attention” paper has attained legendary status. The authors started with a thriving and improving technology—a variety of AI called neural networks—and made it into something else: a digital system so powerful that its output can feel like the product of an alien intelligence. Called transformers, this architecture is the not-so-secret sauce behind all those mind-blowing AI products, including ChatGPT and graphic generators such as Dall-E and Midjourney. Shazeer now jokes that if he knew how famous the paper would become, he “might have worried more about the author order.” All eight of the signers are now microcelebrities. “I have people asking me for selfies—because I’m on a paper!” says Llion Jones, who is (randomly, of course) name number five.

“Without transformers I don’t think we’d be here now,” says Geoffrey Hinton, who is not one of the authors but is perhaps the world’s most prominent AI scientist. He’s referring to the ground-shifting times we live in, as OpenAI and other companies build systems that rival and in some cases surpass human output.

All eight authors have since left Google. Like millions of others, they are now working in some way with systems powered by what they created in 2017. I talked to the Transformer Eight to piece together the anatomy of a breakthrough, a gathering of human minds to create a machine that might well save the last word for itself.

The story of transformers begins with the fourth of the eight names: Jakob Uszkoreit.

More here