Microsoft Invests in OpenAI to Pursue Challenging AI Goal

With Sam Altman as chief executive, OpenAI, the nonprofit artificial intelligence lab he founded with Elon Musk, has become a for-profit company pursuing investments. In fact, Altman, who stepped down as head of Y Combinator, just inked an impressive $1 billion contract with Microsoft. With Microsoft as a marquee investor, OpenAI will now pursue its lofty goal of creating artificial general intelligence (AGI), a system that can mimic the human brain. Alphabet’s DeepMind lab is also pursuing the creation of AGI.

“We’re partnering to develop a hardware and software platform within Microsoft Azure which will scale to AGI,” explains the OpenAI Blog. “We’ll jointly develop new Azure AI supercomputing technologies, and Microsoft will become our exclusive cloud provider — so we’ll be working hard together to further extend Microsoft Azure’s capabilities in large-scale AI systems.”

The New York Times quotes Altman as saying his goal in “running OpenAI is to successfully create broadly beneficial AGI,” adding that the Microsoft partnership is “the most important milestone so far on that path.” NYT says that “the deal is also a way for these two companies to promote themselves,” as OpenAI needs both computing power and the ability to attract researchers while “Microsoft is competing with Google and Amazon in cloud computing, where AI capabilities are increasingly important.”

Although most experts “believe AGI will not arrive for decades or even centuries — if it arrives at all,” AI labs are still working on the technology which could “mimic how humans write,” ultimately helping “disinformation campaigns go undetected by generating huge amounts of subtly different messages.”

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella compared AGI to “his company’s efforts to build a quantum computer, a machine that would be exponentially faster than today’s machines,” dubbing both technologies “high-ambition North Stars.”

OpenAI just built a system that could beat the best players at the video game “Dota 2,” in which “each player must navigate a complex, three-dimensional environment along with several other players, coordinating a careful balance between attack and defense.” To do so, OpenAI used reinforcement “trial-and-error” learning, in 45,000 years of gameplay over several months, and “spent millions of dollars renting access to tens of thousands of computer chips inside cloud computing services run by companies like Google and Amazon.”

Altman said most of Microsoft’s $1 billion investment — which will be doled out over 10+ years — will be spent on computing power in pursuit of AGI.

Microsoft will also assist the effort by “building new kinds of computing systems that can help the lab analyze increasingly large amounts of information.” “This is about really having that tight feedback cycle between a high-ambition pursuit of AGI and what is our core business, which is building the world’s computer,” said Nadella. The contract states that “Microsoft will eventually become the lab’s sole source of computing power.”