The Google Brain Team’s Approach to Research

About a year ago, the Google Brain team first shared our mission “Make machines intelligent. Improve people’s lives.” In that time, we’ve shared updates on our work to infuse machine learning across Google products that hundreds of millions of users access everyday, including Translate, Maps, and more. Today, I’d like to share more about how we approach this mission both through advancement in the fundamental theory and understanding of machine learning, and through research in the service of product.

Five years ago, our colleagues Alfred Spector, Peter Norvig, and Slav Petrov published a blog post and paper explaining Google’s hybrid approach to research, an approach that always allowed for varied balances between curiosity-driven and application-driven research. The biggest challenges in machine learning that the Brain team is focused on require the broadest exploration of new ideas, which is why our researchers set their own agendas with much of our team focusing specifically on advancing the state-of-the-art in machine learning. In doing so, we have published hundreds of papers over the last several years in conferences such as NIPS, ICML and ICLR, with acceptance rates significantly above conference averages.

Critical to achieving our mission is contributing new and fundamental research in machine learning. To that end, we’ve built a thriving team that conducts long-term, open research to advance science. In pursuing research across fields such as visual and auditory perception, natural language understanding, art and music generation, and systems architecture and algorithms, we regularly collaborate with researchers at external institutions, with fully 1/3rd of our papers in 2017 having one or more cross-institutional authors. Additionally, we host collaborators from academic institutions to enhance our own work and strengthen our connection to the external scientific community.

We also believe in the importance of clear and understandable explanations of the concepts in modern machine learning. is an online technical journal providing a forum for this purpose, launched by Brain team members Chris Olah and Shan Carter. TensorFlow Playground is an in-browser experimental venue created by the Google Brain team’s visualization experts to give people insight into how neural networks behave on simple problems, and PAIR’s deeplearn.js is an open source WebGL-accelerated JavaScript library for machine learning that runs entirely in your browser, with no installations and no backend.

In addition to working with the best minds in academia and industry, the Brain team, like many other teams at Google, believes in fostering the development of the next generation of scientists. Our team hosts more than 50 interns every year, with the goal of publishing their work in top machine learning venues (roughly 25% of our group’s publications so far in 2017 have intern co-authors, usually as primary authors). Additionally, in 2016, we welcomed the first cohort of the Google Brain Residency Program, a one-year program for people who want to learn to do machine learning research. In its inaugural year, 27 residents conducted research alongside and under the mentorship of Brain team members, and authored more than 40 papers that were accepted in top research conferences. Our second group of 36 residents started their one-year residency in our group in July, and are already involved in a wide variety of projects.

Along with other teams within Google Research, we enjoy the freedom to both contribute fundamental advances in machine learning, and separately conduct product-focused research. Both paths are important in ensuring that advances in machine learning have a significant impact on the world.