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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, pictured at the company’s Build developer conference, says the company’s work with OpenAI will help to democratize artificial intelligence while keeping safety “front and center,” aiming to ensure that the robots stay on our side. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Microsoft will invest $1 billion in OpenAI and work with the San Francisco-based artificial intelligence powerhouse to create a computational platform of “unprecedented scale” to accelerate the development of advanced forms of AI.

The expanded partnership gives Microsoft and its Azure cloud platform an influential ally in its competition with Google, Amazon and other rivals in the high-stakes race to develop next-generation AI platforms and technologies. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has called out AI as a pivotal area for the future of the company.

OpenAI was formed in 2016 by Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO; Sam Altman, former president of the Y Combinator startup accelerator; Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist; and Greg Brockman, the former Stripe CTO. Musk, who has sounded the alarm over the risks of AI, said in May that he was no longer involved in OpenAI.

OpenAI is pursuing breakthroughs in artificial general intelligence, or AGI. Such technology would be capable of developing deep expertise across many subjects, not just one domain, surpassing human abilities to help solve major challenges in areas such as healthcare, climate change and education.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash. on July 15, 2019. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures, via Microsoft)

In a statement, Altman called artificial general intelligence “the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity.”

He added, “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. We believe it’s crucial that AGI is deployed safely and securely and that its economic benefits are widely distributed. We are excited about how deeply Microsoft shares this vision.”

Here are the key components of the deal, as announced by the companies.

  • Microsoft will invest $1 billion in OpenAI, which will make Microsoft its preferred partner for commercializing its new AI technologies.
  • The companies will jointly develop new supercomputer technologies for AI for Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, including hardware and software, that developers can use to build new AI applications.
  • Microsoft Azure will become OpenAI’s exclusive cloud provider. OpenAI started working with Azure in 2016, the year it was founded, but it also has worked previously with Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services.
  • The companies say they plan to implement the resulting AI advances “in a safe, secure, and trustworthy way,” a shared ethos that they describe as a key reason for working together.

Nadella said in a statement that the “ambition is to democratize AI – while always keeping AI safety front and center – so everyone can benefit.”

The investment comes at a time of transition for OpenAI. Founded as a non-profit institution, OpenAI recently announced plans to reinvent itself as a for-profit (or “capped profit”) company with Altman as CEO.

Microsoft’s deeper partnership with OpenAI promises to garner significant attention in the tech world, but key details such as the specific terms and nature of Microsoft’s investment in OpenAI weren’t initially released by the companies. The agreement was described as “multi-year,” without a specific number of years.

“An alliance between a leading cloud provider and a leading AI research lab seems like a marriage made in heaven,” said Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, in an email to GeekWire. “But, of course, God is in the details.”

OpenAI made headlines this spring for developing an AI text-generation technology so convincing that researchers decided not to release the full version, concerned that it could be used by others for malicious purposes at a time of heightened concern about fake news and the risks of mass public deception.

Past OpenAI projects included a bot that taught itself to play the video game Dota 2 so well, from scratch, that it defeated one of the world’s top professional gamers.

Greg Brockman, OpenAI co-founder and chairman. (LinkedIn Photo)

Brockman, the OpenAI co-founder and chairman, indicated in a blog post that technology costs were a major consideration.

“OpenAI is producing a sequence of increasingly powerful AI technologies, which requires a lot of capital for computational power,” Brockman wrote. “The most obvious way to cover costs is to build a product, but that would mean changing our focus. Instead, we intend to license some of our pre-AGI technologies, with Microsoft becoming our preferred partner for commercializing them.”

“We have a hard technical path in front of us, requiring a unified software engineering and AI research effort of massive computational scale, but technical success alone is not enough. To accomplish our mission of ensuring that AGI (whether built by us or not) benefits all of humanity, we’ll need to ensure that AGI is deployed safely and securely; that society is well-prepared for its implications; and that its economic upside is widely shared.”

Update, 3 p.m.: A couple more details on Microsoft’s investment, via a company spokesperson: Microsoft has the right to appoint one OpenAI board member, but hasn’t yet exercised that right. Asked whether the $1 billion was in cash or technology, the company declined to share specifics but said none of the investment is in Azure credits.

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