Microsoft’s latest goal is the stuff of sci-fi novels: To build an AI that’s smart enough to run society, and solve our most pressing problems. On Monday, the company said it wants to lay the foundation for its creation by investing $1 billion into OpenAI, a San Francisco-based company co-founded by Elon Musk.
The investment will make Microsoft the “exclusive” provider of cloud computing services to OpenAI, and the two companies will work together to develop new technologies. OpenAI will also license some of its tech to Microsoft to commercialize, though when this may happen and what tech will be involved has yet to be announced.
“We believe that the creation of beneficial AGI (artificial general intelligence) will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,” Greg Brockman, chief technology officer of OpenAI, said in a press release today.
Existing AI systems beat humans at lots of narrow tasks — chess, Go, Starcraft, image generation — and they’re catching up to humans at others, like translation and news reporting. But an artificial general intelligence would be one system with the capacity to surpass us at all of those things.
Imagine a computer smart enough to master one field, and then another, and another, and then using that knowledge for the betterment of mankind. “The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,” OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said in today’s announcement. “Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity.”
OpenAI began as a nonprofit research lab in 2015 and was intended to match the high-tech R&D of companies like Google and Amazon while focusing on developing AI in a safe and democratic fashion. But earlier this year, OpenAI said it needed more money to continue this work, and it set up a new for-profit firm to seek outside investment.
To attract backers, OpenAI has made outrageous promises about the potential of its technology. Altman, who became CEO of the new for-profit OpenAI, has said that if the lab does manage to create artificial general intelligence, it could “maybe capture the light cone of all future value in the universe.”
Whether or not creating an AGI is even possible remains up for debate. Meanwhile, others may cringe at the thought of an AI with the intellect to match and exceed humanity. However, OpenAI has been bullish on the prospect. The company points to the breakthroughs researchers have made in last decade in getting AI algorithms to recognize images, translate languages, and control robots.
Some analysts have compared the development of AGI to the development of electricity. It’s not just one breakthrough; it enables countless other changes in the way we live our lives.
But the announcement also nods at the ways this could go wrong. OpenAI’s team working on the safety and policy implications of AGI has been unafraid to articulate ways that AGI could be a disaster rather than a boon.
So how far away is AGI? Here, experts disagree. Some estimate that we’re only a decade away while others point out that there’s been optimism thatAGI is just around the corner for a long time and it has never arrived.
The disagreements don’t fall along obvious lines. Some academics, such as MIT’s Max Tegmark, are among those predicting AI soon, while some key figures in industry, such as Facebook’s Yann LeCun, are among those who think it’s likely fairly distant. But they do agree that it’s possible and will happen someday, and that makes it one of the big open challenges of this century.
Although OpenAI isn’t alone in trying to create an AGI, the company was founded in 2015 with the goal of developing artificial intelligence responsibly, amid fears the same technologies may one day pose a serious threat to human society. “We believe it’s crucial that AGI is deployed safely and securely and that its economic benefits are widely distributed,” Altman added.