Earlier this year, founder-investor Sam Altman left his high-profile role as the president of Y Combinator to become the CEO of OpenAI, an AI research outfit that was founded by some of the most prominent people in the tech industry in late 2015. The idea: to ensure that artificial intelligence is “developed in a way that is safe and is beneficial to humanity,” as one of those founders, Elon Musk, said back then to the New York Times.
The move is intriguing for many reasons, including that artificial general intelligence — or the ability for machines to be as smart as humans — does not yet exist, with even AI’s top researchers far from clear about when it might. Under the leadership Altman, OpenAI, which was originally a non-profit, has also restructured as a for-profit company with some caveats, saying it will “need to invest billions of dollars in upcoming years into large-scale cloud compute, attracting and retaining talented people, and building AI supercomputers.”
Whether OpenAI is able to attract so much funding is an open question, but our guess is that it will, if for no reason other than Altman himself — a force of nature who easily charmed a crowd during an extended stage interview with this editor Thursday night, in a talk that covered everything from YC’s evolution to Altman’s current work at OpenAI.
On YC, for example, we discussed that leanness and “ramen profitability” was once the goal for graduates of the popular accelerator program but that a newer goal seems to be to immediately raise millions of dollars in venture funding, if not tens of millions of dollars. (“If I could control the market — obviously the free market is going to do its thing — I would not have YC companies raise the amounts of money they raise or at the valuations they do,” Altman told attendees at the small industry event. “I do think it is, on net, bad for the startups.”)
Altman was also candid when asked personal and occasionally corny questions, even offering up a story about the strong relationship he has long enjoyed with mom, who happened to be in town for the event. Not only did he say that she remains one of a small handful of people who he “absolutely” trusts, but he acknowledged that it has become harder over time to get unvarnished feedback from people outside that small circle. “You get to some point in your career where people are afraid to offend you or say something you might not want to hear. I’m definitely aware that I get stuff filtered and planned out ahead of time at this point.”
Certainly, Altman is given more rope than most. Not only was this evidenced in the way that Altman ran Y Combinator for five years — essentially supersizing it time and again — but it’s plain from the way he discusses OpenAI that his current thinking is no less audacious. Indeed, much of what Altman said Thursday night would be considered pure insanity coming from someone else. Coming from Altman, it merely drew raised brows.
Asked for example, how OpenAI plans to make money (we wondered if it might license some of its work), Altman answered that the “honest answer is we have no idea. We have never made any revenue. We have no current plans to make revenue. We have no idea how we may one day generate revenue.”
Continued Altman, “We’ve made a soft promise to investors that, ‘Once we build a generally intelligent system, that basically we will ask it to figure out a way to make an investment return for you.’” When the crowd erupted with laughter (it wasn’t immediately obvious that he was serious), Altman himself offered that it sounds like an episode of “Silicon Valley,” but he added, “You can laugh. It’s all right. But it really is what I actually believe.”
We also asked what it means that, under Altman’s leadership, OpenAI has become a “capped profit” company, with the promise of giving investors up to 100 times their return before giving away excess profit to the rest of the world. We noted that 100x is a very high bar — so high in fact that most investors investing in plain-old for-profit companies seldom get close to a 100x return. For example, Sequoia Capital, the only institutional investor in WhatsApp, reportedly saw 50 times the $60 million it had invested in the company when it sold to Facebook for $22 billion, a stunning return.
But Altman not only pushed back on the idea the idea that “capped profit” is a bit of marketing brilliance, he doubled down on why it makes sense. Specifically, he said that the opportunity with artificial general intelligence is so incomprehensibly enormous that if OpenAI manages to crack this particular nut, it could “maybe capture the light cone of all future value in the universe, and that’s for sure not okay for one group of investors to have.”
He also said that future investors will see their investment capped at a lower return — that OpenAI basically wanted to find a way to reward its earliest backers given the risk they are taking.
Before we parted ways, we also shared with Altman various criticisms by AI researchers who we’d interviewed ahead of our sit-down and who’d complained that, among other things, OpenAI seeks out attention for qualitative and not foundational leaps in already proven work, and that its very mission of discovering a path to “safe” artificial general intelligence needlessly raises alarms and makes their research harder.
Altman absorbed and responded to each point. He wasn’t entirely dismissive of them, either, saying of OpenAI’s alarmist bent, for example, that he does have “some sympathy for that argument.”
Still, Altman insisted there’s a better argument to be made for thinking about — and talking with the media about — the potential societal consequences of AI, no matter how disingenuous some may find it. “The same people who say OpenAI is fear mongering or whatever are the same ones who are saying, ‘Shouldn’t Facebook have thought about this before they did it?’ This is us trying to think about it before we do it.”
You can check out the full interview below. The first half of our chat is largely centered on his Altman’s career at YC, where he remains chairman. We begin discussing OpenAI in greater detail around the 26-minute mark.
Facebook really wants you to read articles before sharing them
It’s a common Internet habit: reading an article’s headline and then sharing the work without reading it. There are multiple reasons someone may do this, not the least of which is making assumptions about what the article presents based on its titles. Facebook is taking steps to address this habit, which can be problematic at times, by rolling out a new prompt.
The problem with sharing articles based on nothing more than the title is the risk of spreading misinformation, coming to conclusions that aren’t supported by the article, and lacking key details needed to discuss the matter. Actually reading the article provides context that may give the person sharing it a more informed perspective about the topic.
Facebook has announced that in order to encourage users to read articles before sharing them, it will now show them a prompt if they attempt to share a news article link they haven’t opened. The prompt includes the option to open the article first or to continue with sharing it.
Facebook notes in its prompt, “Sharing articles without reading them may mean missing key facts.” The prompt is described as a test at this time; it’s unclear how widely it is available. As with any test, it is possible it may change in the future or, perhaps, be removed.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of feature appear on a social media platform. Last summer, Twitter introduced a similar prompt that encouraged its readers to read an article before sharing it. The feature first arrived on Android before rolling out in October 2020 on iOS.
Amazon fake reviews scam revealed in data breach with massive potential
By now, most of us probably suspect that fake reviews on internet shopping sites are a real thing. Whether being offering so-called “free product trials” after buying something or encountering a review that makes the product a little too good to be true, it’s easy to assume that fake reviews are a thing that happens. Today, however, a new security breach is giving us a better idea of just how widespread this might be.
Earlier this year, the folks over at SafetyDetectives discovered an open ElasticSearch database that contained what they call a “treasure trove” of messages between Amazon vendors and Amazon customers regarding fake reviews. The vendors in question typically offered free products in exchange for positive reviews, and in all, SafetyDetectives says that as many as 200,000 people are implicated by the data breach.
More than 13 million records comprising 7GB of data was revealed by this ElasticSearch server, which was closed and secured several days after SafetyDetectives discovered it in early March. SafetyDetectives says that it was unable to identify the owner of that server, making it impossible to alert them that the server was sitting wide open. It’s clear, however, that the server contained communications between several different vendors and customers – not just a single vendor.
Information that was leaked includes email addresses along with WhatsApp and Telegram phone numbers belonging to vendors. Customer data that was leaked includes 75,000 Amazon profile and account links of those who were selling reviews, PayPal email addresses, email addresses, and “Fan names” that could include the first names and surnames of users.
Instead of communicating through Amazon, vendors and the people selling reviews would often communicate through other messaging apps. Review sellers, it seems, were often instructed to purchase the product from Amazon and wait a few days before publishing a positive review of it, often with instructions from the vendor regarding what to say and how to make the review seem credible. After that, they were promised a refund on the purchase price of item – which was often carried out through PayPal to avoid using Amazon’s systems – and were allowed to keep the item in exchange for their positive review.
Obviously, this has some pretty big implications for vendors and Amazon users who were participating in fake reviews, as accounts for both could be terminated and fines could be levied depending on where in the world these vendors and reviewers are based. If you have a moment, be sure to read through SafetyDetectives’ full report on this data breach, because there’s a lot of good information there – including tips on how to spot fake reviews on Amazon.
Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds leak with AirPods implications
Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds leaked this week with features that look to compete with AirPods on several fronts. Most compelling is the wireless earbuds ability to charge wirelessly, using the case they come in and a new Sony Android smartphone as a charging pad. These earbuds will likely roll with Hi-Res audio support and 6 hours* of battery life.
These earbuds were leaked via internal company document posted by The Walkman Blog. It is hypothesized there that the case and the earbuds indicate the ability to charge wirelessly, complete with Xperia smartphone battery sharing action.
*Early retail packaging suggests that the earbuds will have 9 hours of battery life AND that the battery case will supply 9 hours MORE battery life. This is after the battery case is charged fully. Packaging also confirmed Bluetooth connectivity and IPX4 water resistance.
These earbuds will very likely work with noise canceling technology and voice assistant abilities. This would require connectivity with a compatible smartphone. It would seem that there are spaces for two different microphones, indicating there’ll be both noise cancellation tech and voice assistant support.
These earbuds show simple replaceable comfort earbud tips for users to switch at their leisure. The buds look like they’ll have one SONY logo in gold while the rest of the device is black, save a gold metal accent piece. This accent piece MAY be the part that confirms noise cancellation abilities.
It’s likely these earbuds will be released in June of 2021. At that time, they’ll likely be paired with a new Sony Xperia smartphone with wireless charging support and battery sharing support. This being the first time Sony Xperia phones recorded a profit in many seasons, it might be the best possible time to take a crack at a wider audience, complete with earbuds and smartphones that can capture the audience that’s tired of Apple and Samsung.
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