Microsoft’s latest goal is the stuff of sci-fi novels: To build an AI that’s smart enough to run society, and solve our most pressing problems. On Monday, the company said it wants to lay the foundation for its creation by investing $1 billion into OpenAI, a San Francisco-based company co-founded by Elon Musk.
The investment’s overarching aim is toward an artificial general intelligence (AGI), as opposed to narrow AI. Currently, the most cutting-edge AI programs have been designed to focus on a single task, whether it’s beating a human at a videogame or creating fake, but life-like photos.
AGI is far more ambitious: Imagine a computer smart enough to master one field, and then another, and another, and then using that knowledge for the betterment of mankind. “The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,” OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said in today’s announcement. “Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity.”
Whether or not creating an AGI is even possible remains up for debate. Meanwhile, others may cringe at the thought of an AI with the intellect to match and exceed humanity. However, OpenAI has been bullish on the prospect. The company points to the breakthroughs researchers have made in last decade in getting AI algorithms to recognize images, translate languages, and control robots. One of OpenAI’s own AI projects can write fiction like a human can (sort of).
However, creating new AI-based technologies costs a lot of money. Not only does it require programming, but also renting access to thousands of servers. So OpenAI has been seeking funding. “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,” Altman wrote in a separate blog post.
How OpenAI will exactly create an AGI wasn’t mentioned. But as part of today’s investment, OpenAI will port its research over to Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service. The two companies also plan on jointly building new supercomputing technologies to power next-generation AI algorithms. This will involve creating hardware that can simulate the way biological brains work through what’s called artificial neural networks.
Although OpenAI isn’t alone in trying to create an AGI, the company was founded in 2015 with the goal of developing artificial intelligence responsibly, amid fears the same technologies may one day pose a serious threat to human society. “We believe it’s crucial that AGI is deployed safely and securely and that its economic benefits are widely distributed,” Altman added.