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Artificial-Intelligence Research Center Is Founded by Silicon Valley Investors


Elon Musk, the chief of Tesla, is among the investors behind a new artificial-intelligence research center. Credit Eric Piermont/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A group of prominent Silicon Valley investors and technology companies said on Friday that they would establish an artificial-intelligence research center to develop “digital intelligence” that will benefit humanity.

The investors — including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman — said they planned to commit $ 1 billion to the project long term, but would initially spend only a small fraction of that amount in the first few years of the project. But, Mr. Musk said, “Everyone who is listed as a contributor has made a substantial commitment and this should be viewed as at least a billion-dollar project.”

The organization, to be named OpenAI, will be established as a nonprofit, and will be based in San Francisco.

Its long-range goal will be to create an “artificial general intelligence,” a machine capable of performing any intellectual task that a human being can, according to Mr. Musk. He also stressed that the focus was on building technologies that augment rather than replace humans.

Mr. Musk, who is deploying A.I.-based technologies in some of his products like the Tesla automobile, said that he has had longstanding concerns about the possibility that artificial intelligence could be used to create machines that might turn on humanity.

He began discussing the issue this year with Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Thiel and Sam Altman, president of the Y Combinator investment group.

“We discussed what is the best thing we can do to ensure the future is good?” he said. “We could sit on the sidelines or we can encourage regulatory oversight, or we could participate with the right structure with people who care deeply about developing A.I. in a way that is safe and is beneficial to humanity.”

“Artificial intelligence is one of the great opportunities for improving the world today,” Mr. Hoffman said in an email. “The specific applications range from self-driving cars, to medical diagnosis and precision personalized medicine, to many other areas of data, analysis, decisioning across industries.”

Other backers of the project include Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator; Greg Brockman, the former chief technology officer of Stripe, as well as Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s Cloud Services subsidiary; and Infosys, an Indian software consulting and consulting firm. The research effort has also attracted a group of young artificial intelligence researchers.

The founders said they were not yet ready to provide details on who had donated how much and the rate at which the project money would be spent. They will fund the development of the project on a year-by-year basis. They also said they were not yet ready to describe how quickly the project would grow in terms of funding or staffing.

The announcement occurs in the same week that one of the main academic gatherings focusing on artificial intelligence, the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, is being held in Montreal.

In recent years the event has grown as major technology corporations like Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft have started competing to hire the most talented researchers in the field. Salaries and hiring incentives have soared.

The research director of OpenAI will be Ilya Sutskever, a Google expert on machine learning. Mr. Brockman will serve at the chief technology officer. The group will begin with seven researchers, including graduate researchers who have been standouts at universities like Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University.

“The people on the team have all been offered substantially more to work at other places,” Mr. Musk said.

Added Mr. Altman: “It is lucky for us the best people in any field generally care about what is best for the world.”

In October 2014, Mr. Musk stirred controversy when, during an interview at M.I.T., he described artificial intelligence our “biggest existential threat” and added, ”With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon.”

In October, he donated $ 10 million to the Future of Life Institute, a Cambridge, Mass., organization focused on developing positive ways for humanity to respond to challenges posed by advanced technologies.

He said that the new organization would be separate from the Future of Life Institute, and that while the new organization did have a broad research plan, it was not yet ready to offer a specific road map.

In a statement, the group sounded an open-source theme — open source software can be freely shared without intellectual property restrictions — and said that they were committed to ensuring that advanced artificial tools remained publicly available. “Since our research is free from financial obligations, we can better focus on a positive human impact,” the group said. “We believe A.I. should be an extension of individual human wills and, in the spirit of liberty, as broadly and evenly distributed as possible.”

Mr. Musk said he remained concerned that A.I. advances might work against, rather than benefit, humanity.

“There is always some risk that in actually trying to advance A.I. we may create the thing we are concerned about,” he said.

In the last two years there has been a race to set up new research facilities focused both on advancing A.I. and in assessing its impact.

In 2014, Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, established the nonprofit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, whose mission is “to contribute to humanity through high-impact A.I. research and engineering.”

In 2014, the Microsoft A.I. researcher Eric Horvitz gave an undisclosed amount as a gift to Stanford to study the impact of the technology over the next century.

Last month, the Toyota Corporation said that it would invest $ 1 billion in a five-year research effort in artificial intelligence and robotics technologies to be based in a laboratory near Stanford.


NYT > Technology

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