OpenAI Diverges From its Founding Ideals

The AI moonshot was founded in the spirit of transparency. This is the inside story of how competitive pressure eroded that idealism

OpenAI entered the world with a splash on December 11, 2015. It wasn’t the first to openly declare it was pursuing AGI; DeepMind had done so five years earlier and had been acquired by Google in 2014. But OpenAI seemed different. For one thing, the sticker price was shocking: the venture would start with $1 billion from private investors, including Musk, Altman, and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel.

The star-studded investor list stirred up a media frenzy, as did the impressive list of initial employees: Greg Brockman, who had run technology for the payments company Stripe, would be chief technology officer; Ilya Sutskever, who had studied under AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, would be research director; and seven researchers, freshly graduated from top universities or plucked from other companies, would compose the core technical team. (Last February, Musk announced that he was parting ways with the company over disagreements about its direction. A month later, Altman stepped down as president of startup accelerator Y Combinator to become OpenAI’s CEO.)

But more than anything, OpenAI’s nonprofit status made a statement. “It’ll be important to have a leading research institution which can prioritize a good outcome for all over its own self-interest,” the announcement said. “Researchers will be strongly encouraged to publish their work, whether as papers, blog posts, or code, and our patents (if any) will be shared with the world.” Though it never made the criticism explicit, the implication was clear: other labs, like DeepMind, could not serve humanity because they were constrained by commercial interests. While they were closed, OpenAI would be open.

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