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Microsoft's Exciting and Frightening $1 Billion Investment in OpenAI

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In a deal that has far-reaching implications for artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing at large, Microsoft announced this week that it is investing $1 billion in OpenAI, a research lab dedicated to creating artificial general intelligence (AGI). Founded by a host of technology bigwigs including Elon Musk and Sam Altman, OpenAI was originally created as an open, nonprofit organization pledged to diseminating information about AGI.

As the organization has expanded, it has created a for-profit arm called OpenAI LP, which is where Microsoft’s investment is being directed. In addition to the cash infusion, Microsoft will also become the “exclusive” provider of cloud computing services to OpenAI, and the companies have pledged to work together to develop new technologies. In return, OpenAI will license technology to Microsoft for commercialization.

The deal has attracted some fierce criticism from the AI community, with many believing OpenAI has “sold out” and abandoned its original mission to develop AGI in a “democratic” fashion for the greater good of humankind. However, the company always aimed to keep up with the AI research of Google and Amazon, Microsoft’s main cloud competitors. And OpenAI’s core initiative has always been the AGI flavor of AI, which aims to develop the technology into something as intelligent and flexible as a human being – an exciting and absolutely terrifying concept.

“The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,” said Altman, CEO of the for-profit arm of OpenAI. “Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity, and we’re working with Microsoft to build the supercomputing foundation on which we’ll build AGI.”

From Microsoft’s perspective, the investment will secure a powerful partner for the company’s Azure platform, with OpenAI porting all its services to run on Microsoft Azure, which will then be used to create new AI technologies. When AGI will actually become reality, however, is up for debate with some skeptics estimating only a 50-percent chance of the concept becoming a reality by 2099.

Even so, OpenAI has made amazing research strides including setting new benchmarks for robot dexterity, developing record-winning gaming bots and creating flexible text-generation systems capable of writing song lyrics and generating fake news articles and short stories. Making the actual leap to AGI is an entirely different matter, with Microsoft’s involvement only complicating OpenAI’s objectives, which were already subject to debate.

According to Ashlee Vance, who has published a biography on Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO’s original reason for backing OpenAI was concern about the technology getting out of hand. Specifically, the controversial Musk envisioned “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.” He also worried about the inherent danger of one company owning all the intellectual property for AGI, which seems to be the exact direction the for-profit arm of OpenAI is heading in.

Ben Recht, a University of California at Berkeley professor specializing in machine learning algorithms, told Fortune magazine that he is skeptical that OpenAI was ever really committed to its stated “democratic” objectives of serving the greater good. And the partnership with Microsoft certainly seems to fly in the face of those stated objectives.

"Anyone who believed that Elon Musk and Sam Altman were forming something for the good of mankind with a non-profit were fooling themselves," said Recht. "It's this weird Silicon Valley vanity project." 

Microsoft’s involvement has the potential to elevate OpenAI’s status beyond a so-called vanity project into something much more powerful. It will be interesting to see how the company’s technology evolves with the infusion of Microsoft funds, as well as whether Microsoft can take advantage of AI to overtake AWS in the cloud computing space.

For more information about how AI is transforming cloud computing and a variety of vertical markets, TMC is hosting a Future of Work Expo in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The event, which will take place from February 12-14, 2020, will explore how AI and machine learning may be used to improve business communications, collaboration, sales and marketing and contact centers and customer service.




Edited by Maurice Nagle

Future of Work Contributor

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