On Monday, Microsoft rolled out an OpenAI service as part of its Azure cloud platform, giving businesses and startups the ability to integrate models like ChatGPT into their own systems. The company has already built AI tools into many of its consumer products, such as B. a DALL-E 2 feature in its Bing search engine that can create images based on a text input, and the information recently reported that it is working on bringing more of them to Microsoft Office as well.
Finally, CEO Satya Nadella said in Davos this week, “Every product from Microsoft will have some of the same AI capabilities.”
The company lays claim to what many in the tech industry believe is an AI revolution. Microsoft is one of several, including rival Google, to bet that this generation of artificial intelligence will transform not just productivity software but entire industries, thanks to so-called big language models that understand and converse with people and people in fields like writing from art to computer coding.
“I think this will radically change the future of all knowledge work,” said Bojan Tunguz, machine learning modeler and data scientist at Nvidia, of recent advances in large language models. “We’re only seeing the beginnings of what that means.”
That’s the optimistic view, and you hear that a lot in Silicon Valley and Seattle these days. While Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants have been testing and refining AI models for years, a new generation of risk-taking upstarts have stolen their thunder by taking their experimental AI programs directly to the public. The release of tools like ChatGPT, DALLE-2, Stability AI’s Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney over the past year has made “generative AI” – software that draws on huge data sets to create novel works – the hottest buzzword in the industry.
Now that they get it, Big Tech is playing catch up. And nobody plays it harder than Microsoft.
In Davos Nadella predicted that the current generation of AI will trigger an industry-wide “platform shift” comparable to the shift to mobile devices and cloud computing over the past 15 years. Microsoft, which was an early investor in OpenAI, is reportedly planning to take a much larger stake in the company in what could mean a potentially $10 billion deal, news site Semafor first reported last week. Microsoft and OpenAI declined to comment.
There is also a skeptical view, in which the technology proves to be a dazzling toy and novelty, but is underwhelming or even harmful in its practical application.
ChatGPT can produce remarkably believable-sounding text on a wide variety of topics, but it’s prone to factual errors and problematic bias, and some school districts have already banned it as a potential cheating tool. Tech news site CNET is under fire for secretly using AI to write articles, some of which contain errors. Stability AI, the maker of the AI art generator Stable Diffusion, has been sued by Getty Images for allegedly training its model on copyrighted works without permission. Microsoft has its own history of AI missteps, including the 2016 release of a chatbot named Tay that was trained by trolls to embrace genocidal hatred.
These risks explain why Google, which has developed some of the most advanced AI chat tools, has yet to release them to the public. Google’s LaMDA chatbot system is so sophisticated that one of the company’s engineers was convinced it was sentient, sparking debate over whether it would be irresponsible to make similar tools available to ordinary users.
“Some people are going to get hurt — it’s inevitable,” Meta’s lead AI scientist Yann LeCun said Thursday at a forum hosted by the company Collective[i]. That shouldn’t stop progress, he added, but it’s important for companies involved in developing new forms of AI to find ways to mitigate the damage.
LeCun downplayed ChatGPT as “just well done, not revolutionary” and suggested that the reason it came from a start-up rather than a tech giant is because “Google and Meta both have a lot to lose if they’re putting out a system that makes things up.” (In November, Meta released a language model for scientists called Galactica, only to pull the plug three days later due to backlash.)
Still, Microsoft’s embrace of OpenAI is putting renewed pressure on its rivals, particularly in the lucrative cloud computing sector. While using ChatGPT to improve its own products could help Microsoft maintain its lead in productivity software, the bigger battle is selling AI services to companies. This could include established companies looking to build a smarter customer service chatbot, startups developing more specialized AI tools, or even other AI companies that need cloud computing power to train their own models.
One application already gaining traction is the use of AI to help software developers write code. Microsoft subsidiary GitHub uses OpenAI technology in a tool called GitHub Copilot, which can suggest code in real time as you code.
“Microsoft’s adoption will definitely make it much more widely available,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, CEO of startup Neeva, which recently launched an AI-based search engine that uses language models to directly answer users’ questions. “The problem is, once Microsoft starts tweaking a certain area, they tend to crowd out everyone else.”
Ramaswamy, a former Google executive, predicted that Google would release its own chatbot in the next few months or so, “and it’s going to be very good.” In the long term, however, he doubts that Microsoft or Google can conquer the market.
“The technology is being commercialized quickly,” Ramaswamy said, with startups like Anthropic and Cohere already developing their own tools and models. “Start-ups can afford to take risks because they have a lot less to lose. I think that will be a problem with Google and Microsoft.”
On Friday, Google’s parent company cut 12,000 jobs as CEO Sundar Pichai told remaining employees that the company would sharpen its focus on AI. Earlier this week, Google’s AI guru Jeff Dean published a blog post highlighting the company’s latest work on large language models, and the New York Times reported that the company has asked its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to to review its AI strategy.
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s big strides in AI give the 47-year-old company a touch of excitement at a time when darkness has suffused the tech industry. Microsoft announced its own cuts On Wednesday, subsequent rounds of layoffs at Amazon, Meta and others. But its aggressive AI investments might give its remaining employees — and future recruits — reason for optimism.
To deliver on that promise, it needs to show it can turn its shiny new AI tools into something more consistent than Clippy 2.0.