THE FRIDAY AFTERNOON news dump, a grand tradition observed by politicians and capitalists alike, is usually supposed to hide bad news. So it was a little weird that Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla, and Sam Altman, president of famed tech incubator Y Combinator, unveiled their new artificial intelligence company at the tail end of a weeklong AI conference in Montreal this past December.
But there was a reason they revealed OpenAI at that late hour. It wasn’t that no one was looking. It was that everyone was looking. When some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies caught wind of the project, they began offering tremendous amounts of money to OpenAI’s freshly assembled cadre of artificial intelligence researchers, intent on keeping these big thinkers for themselves. The last-minute offers—some made at the conference itself—were large enough to force Musk and Altman to delay the announcement of the new startup. “The amount of money was borderline crazy,” says Wojciech Zaremba, a researcher who was joining OpenAI after internships at both Google and Facebook and was among those who received big offers at the eleventh hour.
How many dollars is “borderline crazy”? Two years ago, as the market for the latest machine learning technology really started to heat up, Microsoft Research vice president Peter Lee said that the cost of a top AI researcher had eclipsed the cost of a top quarterback prospect in the National Football League—and he meant under regular circumstances, not when two of the most famous entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were trying to poach your top talent. Zaremba says that as OpenAI was coming together, he was offered two or three times his market value.
OpenAI didn’t match those offers. But it offered something else: the chance to explore research aimed solely at the future instead of products and quarterly earnings, and to eventually share most—if not all—of this research with anyone who wants it. That’s right: Musk, Altman, and company aim to give away what may become the 21st century’s most transformative technology—and give it away for free.
Zaremba says those borderline crazy offers actually turned him off—despite his enormous respect for companies like Google and Facebook. He felt like the money was at least as much of an effort to prevent the creation of OpenAI as a play to win his services, and it pushed him even further towards the startup’s magnanimous mission. “I realized,” Zaremba says, “that OpenAI was the best place to be.”
That’s the irony at the heart of this story: even as the world’s biggest tech companies try to hold onto their researchers with the same fierceness that NFL teams try to hold onto their star quarterbacks, the researchers themselves just want to share. In the rarefied world of AI research, the brightest minds aren’t driven by—or at least not only by—the next product cycle or profit margin. They want to make AI better, and making AI better doesn’t happen when you keep your latest findings to yourself.
OpenAI is a billion-dollar effort to push AI as far as it will go.
This morning, OpenAI will release its first batch of AI software, a toolkit for building artificially intelligent systems by way of a technology called “reinforcement learning”—one of the key technologies that, among other things, drove the creation of AlphaGo, the Google AI that shocked the world by mastering the ancient game of Go. With this toolkit, you can build systems that simulate a new breed of robot, play Atari games, and, yes, master the game of Go.
But game-playing is just the beginning. OpenAI is a billion-dollar effort to push AI as far as it will go. In both how the company came together and what it plans to do, you can see the next great wave of innovation forming. We’re a long way from knowing whether OpenAI itself becomes the main agent for that change. But the forces that drove the creation of this rather unusual startup show that the new breed of AI will not only remake technology, but remake the way we build technology.
Silicon Valley is not exactly averse to hyperbole. It’s always wise to meet bold-sounding claims with skepticism. But in the field of AI, the change is real. Inside places like Google and Facebook, a technology called deep learning is already helping Internet services identify faces in photos, recognize commands spoken into smartphones, and respond to Internet search queries. And this same technology can drive so many other tasks of the future. It can help machines understand natural language—the natural way that we humans talk and write. It can create a new breed of robot, giving automatons the power to not only perform tasks but learn them on the fly. And some believe it can eventually give machines something close to common sense—the ability to truly think like a human.
But along with such promise comes deep anxiety. Musk and Altman worry that if people can build AI that can do great things, then they can build AI that can do awful things, too. They’re not alone in their fear of robot overlords, but perhaps counterintuitively, Musk and Altman also think that the best way to battle malicious AI is not to restrict access to artificial intelligence but expand it. That’s part of what has attracted a team of young, hyper-intelligent idealists to their new project.
OpenAI began one evening last summer in a private room at Silicon Valley’s Rosewood Hotel—an upscale, urban, ranch-style hotel that sits, literally, at the center of the venture capital world along Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California. Elon Musk was having dinner with Ilya Sutskever, who was then working on the Google Brain, the company’s sweeping effort to build deep neural networks—artificially intelligent systems that can learn to perform tasks by analyzing massive amounts of digital data, including everything from recognizing photos to writing email messages to, well, carrying on a conversation. Sutskever was one of the top thinkers on the project. But even bigger ideas were in play.
Sam Altman, whose Y Combinator helped bootstrap companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Coinbase, had brokered the meeting, bringing together several AI researchers and a young but experienced company builder named Greg Brockman, previously the chief technology officer at high-profile Silicon Valley digital payments startup called Stripe, another Y Combinator company. It was an eclectic group. But they all shared a goal: to create a new kind of AI lab, one that would operate outside the control not only of Google, but of anyone else. “The best thing that I could imagine doing,” Brockman says, “was moving humanity closer to building real AI in a safe way.”
Musk is one of the loudest voices warning that we humans could one day lose control of systems powerful enough to learn on their own.
Musk was there because he’s an old friend of Altman’s—and because AI is crucial to the future of his various businesses and, well, the future as a whole. Tesla needs AI for its inevitable self-driving cars. SpaceX, Musk’s other company, will need it to put people in space and keep them alive once they’re there. But Musk is also one of the loudest voices warning that we humans could one day lose control of systems powerful enough to learn on their own.
The trouble was: so many of the people most qualified to solve all those problems were already working for Google (and Facebook and Microsoft and Baidu and Twitter). And no one at the dinner was quite sure that these thinkers could be lured to a new startup, even if Musk and Altman were behind it. But one key player was at least open to the idea of jumping ship. “I felt there were risks involved,” Sutskever says. “But I also felt it would be a very interesting thing to try.”
Breaking the Cycle
Emboldened by the conversation with Musk, Altman, and others at the Rosewood, Brockman soon resolved to build the lab they all envisioned. Taking on the project full-time, he approached Yoshua Bengio, a computer scientist at the University of Montreal and one of founding fathers of the deep learning movement. The field’s other two pioneers—Geoff Hinton and Yann LeCun—are now at Google and Facebook, respectively, but Bengio is committed to life in the world of academia, largely outside the aims of industry. He drew up a list of the best researchers in the field, and over the next several weeks, Brockman reached out to as many on the list as he could, along with several others.
Greg Brockman, one of OpenAI’s founding fathers and its chief technology officer.Click to Open Overlay Gallery
Greg Brockman, one of OpenAI’s founding fathers and its chief technology officer.CHRISTIE HEMM KLOK/WIRED
Many of these researchers liked the idea, but they were also wary of making the leap. In an effort to break the cycle, Brockman picked the ten researchers he wanted the most and invited them to spend a Saturday getting wined, dined, and cajoled at a winery in Napa Valley. For Brockman, even the drive into Napa served as a catalyst for the project. “An underrated way to bring people together are these times where there is no way to speed up getting to where you’re going,” he says. “You have to get there, and you have to talk.” And once they reached the wine country, that vibe remained. “It was one of those days where you could tell the chemistry was there,” Brockman says. Or as Sutskever puts it: “the wine was secondary to the talk.”
By the end of the day, Brockman asked all ten researchers to join the lab, and he gave them three weeks to think about it. By the deadline, nine of them were in. And they stayed in, despite those big offers from the giants of Silicon Valley. “They did make it very compelling for me to stay, so it wasn’t an easy decision,” Sutskever says of Google, his former employer. “But in the end, I decided to go with OpenAI, partly of because of the very strong group of people and, to a very large extent, because of its mission.”
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The deep learning movement began with academics. It’s only recently that companies like Google and Facebook and Microsoft have pushed into the field, as advances in raw computing power have made deep neural networks a reality, not just a theoretical possibility. People like Hinton and LeCun left academia for Google and Facebook because of the enormous resources inside these companies. But they remain intent on collaborating with other thinkers. Indeed, as LeCun explains, deep learning research requires this free flow of ideas. “When you do research in secret,” he says, “you fall behind.”
As a result, big companies now share a lot of their AI research. That’s a real change, especially for Google, which has long kept the tech at the heart of its online empire secret. Recently, Google open sourced the software engine that drives its neural networks. But it still retains the inside track in the race to the future. Brockman, Altman, and Musk aim to push the notion of openness further still, saying they don’t want one or two large corporations controlling the future of artificial intelligence.
The Limits of Openness
All of which sounds great. But for all of OpenAI’s idealism, the researchers may find themselves facing some of the same compromises they had to make at their old jobs. Openness has its limits. And the long-term vision for AI isn’t the only interest in play. OpenAI is not a charity. Musk’s companies could benefit greatly the startup’s work, and so could many of the companies backed by Altman’s Y Combinator. “There are certainly some competing objectives,” LeCun says. “It’s a non-profit, but then there is a very close link with Y Combinator. And people are paid as if they are working in the industry.”
According to Brockman, the lab doesn’t pay the same astronomical salaries that AI researchers are now getting at places like Google and Facebook. But he says the lab does want to “pay them well,” and it’s offering to compensate researchers with stock options, first in Y Combinator and perhaps later in SpaceX (which, unlike Tesla, is still a private company).
Brockman insists that OpenAI won’t give special treatment to its sister companies.
Nonetheless, Brockman insists that OpenAI won’t give special treatment to its sister companies. OpenAI is a research outfit, he says, not a consulting firm. But when pressed, he acknowledges that OpenAI’s idealistic vision has its limits. The company may not open source everything it produces, though it will aim to share most of its research eventually, either through research papers or Internet services. “Doing all your research in the open is not necessarily the best way to go. You want to nurture an idea, see where it goes, and then publish it,” Brockman says. “We will produce lot of open source code. But we will also have a lot of stuff that we are not quite ready to release.”
Both Sutskever and Brockman also add that OpenAI could go so far as to patent some of its work. “We won’t patent anything in the near term,” Brockman says. “But we’re open to changing tactics in the long term, if we find it’s the best thing for the world.” For instance, he says, OpenAI could engage in pre-emptive patenting, a tactic that seeks to prevent others from securing patents.
But to some, patents suggest a profit motive—or at least a weaker commitment to open source than OpenAI’s founders have espoused. “That’s what the patent system is about,” says Oren Etzioni, head of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “This makes me wonder where they’re really going.”
The Super-Intelligence Problem
When Musk and Altman unveiled OpenAI, they also painted the project as a way to neutralize the threat of a malicious artificial super-intelligence. Of course, that super-intelligence could arise out of the tech OpenAI creates, but they insist that any threat would be mitigated because the technology would be usable by everyone. “We think its far more likely that many, many AIs will work to stop the occasional bad actors,” Altman says.
But not everyone in the field buys this. Nick Bostrom, the Oxford philosopher who, like Musk, has warned against the dangers of AI, points out that if you share research without restriction, bad actors could grab it before anyone has ensured that it’s safe. “If you have a button that could do bad things to the world,” Bostrom says, “you don’t want to give it to everyone.” If, on the other hand, OpenAI decides to hold back research to keep it from the bad guys, Bostrom wonders how it’s different from a Google or a Facebook.
If you share research without restriction, bad actors could grab it before anyone has ensured that it’s safe.
He does say that the not-for-profit status of OpenAI could change things—though not necessarily. The real power of the project, he says, is that it can indeed provide a check for the likes of Google and Facebook. “It can reduce the probability that super-intelligence would be monopolized,” he says. “It can remove one possible reason why some entity or group would have radically better AI than everyone else.”
But as the philosopher explains in a new paper, the primary effect of an outfit like OpenAI—an outfit intent on freely sharing its work—is that it accelerates the progress of artificial intelligence, at least in the short term. And it may speed progress in the long term as well, provided that it, for altruistic reasons, “opts for a higher level of openness than would be commercially optimal.”
“It might still be plausible that a philanthropically motivated R&D funder would speed progress more by pursuing open science,” he says.
Like Xerox PARC
In early January, Brockman’s nine AI researchers met up at his apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. The project was so new that they didn’t even have white boards. (Can you imagine?) They bought a few that day and got down to work.
Brockman says OpenAI will begin by exploring reinforcement learning, a way for machines to learn tasks by repeating them over and over again and tracking which methods produce the best results. But the other primary goal is what’s called “unsupervised learning”—creating machines that can truly learn on their own, without a human hand to guide them. Today, deep learning is driven by carefully labeled data. If you want to teach a neural network to recognize cat photos, you must feed it a certain number of examples—and these examples must be labeled as cat photos. The learning is supervised by human labelers. But like many others researchers, OpenAI aims to create neural nets that can learn without carefully labeled data.
“If you have really good unsupervised learning, machines would be able to learn from all this knowledge on the Internet—just like humans learn by looking around—or reading books,” Brockman says.
He envisions OpenAI as the modern incarnation of Xerox PARC, the tech research lab that thrived in the 1970s. Just as PARC’s largely open and unfettered research gave rise to everything from the graphical user interface to the laser printer to object-oriented programing, Brockman and crew seek to delve even deeper into what we once considered science fiction. PARC was owned by, yes, Xerox, but it fed so many other companies, most notably Apple, because people like Steve Jobs were privy to its research. At OpenAI, Brockman wants to make everyone privy to its research.
This month, hoping to push this dynamic as far as it will go, Brockman and company snagged several other notable researchers, including Ian Goodfellow, another former senior researcher on the Google Brain team. “The thing that was really special about PARC is that they got a bunch of smart people together and let them go where they want,” Brockman says. “You want a shared vision, without central control.”
Giving up control is the essence of the open source ideal. If enough people apply themselves to a collective goal, the end result will trounce anything you concoct in secret. But if AI becomes as powerful as promised, the equation changes. We’ll have to ensure that new AIs adhere to the same egalitarian ideals that led to their creation in the first place. Musk, Altman, and Brockman are placing their faith in the wisdom of the crowd. But if they’re right, one day that crowd won’t be entirely human.