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For the past two decades, search engines like Google and Bing have been our primary portals to the internet. However, as time passed, their original purpose seemed to fade away as advertisements and algorithm-optimized content took the center stage. Instead of reliable guides to the vast online world, these search engines began to feel more like auctioneers, vying for users’ attention.

But Aravind Srinivas and his team at Perplexity.ai are working on an alternative. Instead of sorting through a maze of links, users can now ask Perplexity.ai their questions directly and receive accurate answers supported by a curated collection of sources. Powered by large language models (LLMs), this innovative “answer engine” prioritizes users over advertisers. It’s a paradigm shift that promises to reshape how we discover, access, and consume knowledge online – and consequently, transform the internet as we know it today.

Challenging the dominance of established search giants is no small task. However, Aravind, armed with his impressive credentials including a Ph.D. from Berkeley and experience at OpenAI and DeepMind, is the ideal entrepreneur to rise to this challenge. In a recent conversation, Aravind shared the origins of Perplexity, his approach to incumbents and interface design, and some valuable advice for fellow AI founders.

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The Driving Force Behind Perplexity

Aravind’s journey to found Perplexity was inspired by his upbringing in Chennai, India. In a culture that values scholarship over financial success, his passion for learning and understanding was nurtured from a young age. As an avid cricket fan, Aravind recognized the importance of statistics and data-driven insights in the game. This drive to constantly seek knowledge ultimately shaped his educational path, leading him to explore deep learning research and eventually earning his Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley.

While at Berkeley, Aravind’s fascination with entrepreneurship was sparked by stories of Google’s early days and the transformative power of technologies like PageRank. Inspired by these examples of successful entrepreneurs emerging from academia, Aravind’s interest in startups grew. However, it wasn’t until 2019, during his internship at DeepMind, that he felt the time was right to embark on his entrepreneurial journey.

The Evolution of Perplexity

Initially, Perplexity focused on translating natural language to SQL, aiming to create a copilot for data analysts. However, the technology at the time was not advanced enough, and the fragmented nature of the SQL market presented challenges. Despite this setback, Perplexity’s prototype, BirdSQL, gained significant attention when shared on Twitter. The endorsement from Jack Dorsey helped overcome the initial hurdle of establishing the company’s reputation.

Driven by a desire to create a product that enables people to become smarter and raises the knowledge capital of the planet, Aravind and his cofounders shifted their focus to revolutionizing the search experience. Perplexity’s “answer engine” goes beyond providing a mere list of webpages and instead offers concise answers backed by LLMs. This approach eliminates the need for users to sift through search results and allows for a more intuitive and efficient interaction with the internet.

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Shaping the Future of the Internet

Traditional search engines have shaped the internet’s economics around advertising. Perplexity’s answer engine, powered by LLMs, has the potential to create an alternative model. The increased relevance and accuracy of LLMs can help advertisers reach their intended audience more effectively, focusing on high-quality content rather than optimizing for clicks. Additionally, Perplexity aims to foster a web where clear, trustworthy sources are cited, ensuring that information is verified and reliable. The use of LLMs allows Perplexity to assess the credibility of information and provide users with accurate answers.

The Challenges and Vision Ahead

Building an answer engine that can rival the established search giants is a formidable task. Perplexity began by bootstrapping its database, scraping Twitter and leveraging an existing search index. As the company grows, it continues to enhance its own index, synthesizing and organizing content to deliver accurate and reliable answers.

Aravind acknowledges the competition and the challenge of earning users’ trust. While many are still content with using Google, Aravind believes that a shift away from traditional search engines will eventually happen. However, achieving full parity with Google and providing a product that is 10 times better is crucial to gaining mass-market awareness. Perplexity strives to become an integral part of users’ daily workflows, offering an exceptional product they can rely on.

User-Focused Interface Design

Perplexity places a strong emphasis on intuitive and user-friendly interface design. Inspired by the simplicity of Google’s search interface, Perplexity aims to minimize the number of choices users have to make during their interactions with the product. The company’s philosophy revolves around removing unnecessary elements rather than adding them. By observing user interaction patterns and constantly iterating on the product, Perplexity ensures a seamless and self-explanatory user experience.

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Looking ahead, Perplexity is expanding its efforts towards creating a mobile-native search experience, incorporating features like swiping gestures and voice-based interaction. The company aims to set a high bar for mobile search interfaces, ensuring effortless usability.

Aravind’s Advice for Founders

Aravind’s advice for fellow founders is simple yet powerful: start with what you love. Aligning one’s passion with market demand takes time and patience, but eventually, the right balance can be found. The market will guide the trajectory, but beginning from a place of enthusiasm is crucial. Aravind emphasizes the importance of staying focused, taking action, and gathering feedback from users to iterate and improve the product.

Aravind also emphasizes the value of listening to users and adopting Larry Page’s philosophy that “the user is never wrong.” Addressing user concerns and making the product more intuitive is the responsibility of the company, not the user. Open communication with users helps build trust and enables Perplexity to enhance its offering based on user feedback.

As Perplexity continues to grow and evolve, Aravind is driven by the ambition to change the way people seek information and broaden their understanding. With the potential to become the standard for online knowledge acquisition, Perplexity’s goal is nothing short of transformative.

For more information about Perplexity, visit Ratingperson.

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