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Elon Musk's Billion-Dollar AI Plan For OpenAI Is About Far More Than Saving the World

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It's about sending a message. 

Elon Musk and Sam Altman worry that artificial intelligence will take over the world. So, the two entrepreneurs are creating a billion-dollar not-for-profit company that will maximize the power of AI—and then share it with anyone who wants it.

At least, this is the message that Musk, the founder of electric car company Tesla Motors, and Altman, the president of startup incubator Y Combinator, delivered in announcing their new endeavor, an unprecedented outfit called OpenAI. In an interview with Steven Levy of Backchannel, timed to the company’s launch, Altman said they expect this decades-long project to surpass human intelligence. But they believe that any risks will be mitigated because the technology will be “usable by everyone instead of usable by, say, just Google.”

If OpenAI stays true to its mission, it will act as a check on powerful companies like Google and Facebook.

Naturally, Levy asked whether their plan to freely share this technology would actually empower bad actors, if they would end up giving state-of-the-art AI to the Dr. Evils of the world. But they played down this risk. They feel that the power of the many will outweigh the power of the few. “Just like humans protect against Dr. Evil by the fact that most humans are good, and the collective force of humanity can contain the bad elements,” said Altman, “we think its far more likely that many, many AIs, will work to stop the occasional bad actors.”

Openness as competitive advantage:

OpenAI is the culmination of an extremely magnanimous month in the world of artificial intelligence. In early November, Google open sourced (part of) the software engine that drives its AI servicesdeep learning technologies that have proven enormously adept at identifying images, recognizing spoken words, translating languages, and understanding natural language. And just before the unveiling of OpenAI, Facebook open sourced the designs for the computer server it built to run its own deep learning services, which tackle many of the same tasks as Google’s tech. Now, OpenAI is vowing to share everything it builds—and a big focus seems to be, well, deep learning.

Yes, such sharing is a way of competing. If a company like Google or Facebook openly shares software or hardware designs, it can accelerate the progress of AI as a whole. And that, ultimately, advances their own interests as well. For one, as larger community improves these open source technologies, Google and Facebook can push the improvement back into their own businesses. But open sourcing also is a way of recruiting and retaining talent. In the field of deep learning in particular, researchers—many of whom come from academia—are very much attracted to the idea of openly sharing their work, of benefiting as many people as possible. “It is certainly a competitive advantage when it comes to hiring researchers,” Altman tells WIRED. “The people we hired … love the fact that [OpenAI is] open and they can share their work.”

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