The founder of Perplexity was inspired by Sundar Pichai. Now they're competing to reinvent the search


Arvind 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 came up in his YouTube feed. His vegetarian upbringing in India did not include eggs, as it did for many in the country, but now, in his early twenties, Srinivas wanted to start eating more protein. Here was Pichai, the hero of many aspiring entrepreneurs in India, casually describing his morning: waking up, reading the newspaper, drinking tea and eating an omelette.

Srinivas has shared the video with his mother. Well, he said: you can eat eggs.

Pichai's influence extends far beyond Srinivas's diet. He is also the CEO of a search company called Perplexity AI, one of the most publicized apps of the generative AI era. Srinivas is still taking cues from Pichai, the leader of the world's largest search engine, but his praise is more complex.

“It's kind of a rivalry now,” says Srinivas. “They're weird.”

Srinivas and Pichai both grew up in Chennai, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu – although they were born 22 years apart. By the time Srinivas was working toward a PhD in computer science at UC Berkeley, Pichai had already 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 the same year and became the CEO of Alphabet as well as Google. Srinivas found the work at DeepMind invigorating, but he was disappointed to learn that the flat he had rented without seeing it was a disaster – a “sleazy house, with rats”, he says – so he sometimes Slept in DeepMind's offices.

He discovered a book in the office library about the growth and development of Google, called in the plex, written by WIRED editor Steven Levy. Srinivas read it again and again, deepening his appreciation for Google and its innovations. “Larry and Sergey became my entrepreneurial heroes,” says Srinivas. (He offered to list in the plex Chapter and quote from memory; WIRED agreed with him.)

Shortly after, in 2020, Srinivas ended up working on machine learning for computer vision as a research intern at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. 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 co-founders—Dennis Yarats, Johnny Ho, and Andy Konwinski—teamed up to develop a new approach to search using AI. He began working on algorithms that could translate natural language into the database language SQL, but determined that it was too narrow (or dull). Instead they turned to a product that combines traditional search indexing with the relatively new power of large language models. He called it distraction.

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