OpenAI Wants to Make Ultra-Powerful AI. But Not in a Bad Way

OpenAI’s metamorphosis into a for-profit corporation was driven by a feeling that keeping pace with giants such as Alphabet will require access to ever-growing computing resources. In 2015, OpenAI said it had $1 billion in committed funding from Altman, Musk, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, and Amazon. Altman now says a single billion won’t be enough. “The amount of money we needed to be successful in the mission is much more gigantic than I originally thought,” he says.

OpenAI CTO Greg Brockman, center, shakes hands with members of professional e-gaming team OG after they lost two games of Dota 2 to his researchers’ artificial intelligence bots. 


IRS filings show that in 2017, when OpenAI showed its first Dota-playing bot, it spent $8 million on cloud computing. Its outlay has likely grown significantly since. In 2018, OpenAI disclosed that a precursor to the system that defeated Team OG tied up more than 120,000 processors rented from Google’s cloud division for weeks. The champion-beating version trained for 10 months, playing the equivalent of 45,000 years of Dota against versions of itself. Asked how much that cost, Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, says the project required “millions of dollars” but declined to elaborate.

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Altman isn’t sure if OpenAI will continue to rely on the cloud services of rivals—he remains open to buying or even designing AI hardware. The organization is keeping close tabs on new chips being developed by Google and a raft of startups to put more punch behind machine learning algorithms.

To raise the funds needed to ensure access to future hardware, Altman has been trying to sell investors on a scheme wild even for Silicon Valley. Sink money into OpenAI, the pitch goes, and the company will pay you back 100-fold—once it invents bots that outperform humans at most economically valuable work.

Altman says delivering that pitch has been “the most interesting fundraising experience of my life—it doesn’t fit anyone’s model.” The strongest interest comes from AI-curious wealthy individuals, he says. Hoffman and VC firm Khosla Ventures have invested in the new, for-profit OpenAI but didn’t respond to requests for comment. No one is told when to expect returns, but betting on OpenAI is not for the impatient. VC firms are informed they’ll have to extend the duration of their funds beyond the industry standard decade. “We tell them upfront, you’re not going to get a return in 10 years,” Altman says.

Even as it tries to line up funding, OpenAI is drawing criticism from some leading AI researchers. In February, OpenAI published details of language processing software that could also generate remarkably fluid text. It let some news outlets—including WIRED—try out the software but said the full package and specifications would be kept private out of concern they could be used maliciously, for example to pollute social networks.

That annoyed some prominent names in AI research, including Facebook’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun. In public Facebook posts, he defended open publication of AI research and joked that people should stop having babies, since they could one day create fake news. Mark Zuckerberg clicked “like” on the baby joke; LeCun did not respond to a request for comment.

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