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

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

Srinivas remembers the moment seven years ago when an interview with Pichai popped up in his YouTube feed. His vegetarian upbringing in India had excluded eggs, as it had for many in the country, but now, in his early twenties, Srinivas wanted to start eating 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. OK, she said: You can eat eggs.

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

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

Srinivas and Pichai both grew up in Chennai, India, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu—though the two were born 22 years apart. By the time Srinivas was working toward his PhD in computer science at UC Berkeley, Pichai had been crowned chief executive of Google.

For his first research internship, Srinivas worked at Google-owned DeepMind in London. Pichai also got a new job that year, becoming CEO of Alphabet as well as Google. Srinivas found the work at DeepMind invigorating, but he was dismayed to find that the flat he had rented sight unseen was a disaster—a “crappy home, with rats,” he says—so he sometimes slept in DeepMind’s offices.

He discovered in the office library a book about the development and evolution of Google, called In the Plex, penned by WIRED editor at large Steven Levy. Srinivas read it over and over, deepening his appreciation of Google and its innovations. “Larry and Sergey became my entrepreneurial heroes,” Srinivas says. (He offered to list In the Plex’s chapters and cite passages from memory; WIRED took his word for it.)

Shortly afterwards, in 2020, Srinivas ended up working at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, as a research intern working on machine learning for computer vision. Slowly, Srinivas was making his way through the Google universe, and putting some of his AI research work to good use.

Then, in 2022, Srinivas and three cofounders—Denis Yarats, Johnny Ho, and Andy Konwinski—teamed up to try and develop a new approach to search using AI. They started out working on algorithms that could translate natural language into the database language SQL, but determined this was too narrow (or nerdy). Instead they pivoted to a product that combined a traditional search index with the relatively new power of large language models. They called it Perplexity.

Perplexity is sometimes described as an “answer” engine rather than a search engine, because of the way it uses AI text generation to summarize results. New searches create conversational “threads” on a particular topic. Type in a query, and Perplexity responds with follow up questions, asking you to refine your ask. It eschews direct links in favor of text-based or visual answers that don’t require you to click away to somewhere else to get information.