Microsoft’s artificial intelligence research division has announced a partnership with the Elon Musk-backed nonprofit OpenAI. As part of the deal, OpenAI will get access to Microsoft’s latest virtual machine technology for running large-scale AI training and simulation exercises, while Microsoft will have cutting-edge research conducted on its Azure cloud platform. OpenAI, founded last December by Musk and Y Combinator president Sam Altman, is focused on developing AI that has long-term positive impacts on society, instead of software that could potentially be used for harm or is solely profit-motivated in its creation.
“Microsoft is the large tech company most aligned with us in terms of the goal of democratization to AI technology. This is our most important goal,” Altman, who acts as co-chair of OpenAI, said in a recorded interview with Microsoft AI Research Group president Harry Shum. “We are going to create a very important technology. That should belong to everyone in the world. We don’t want to see that concentrated in a single government, certainly not in a single company.”
The arrangement is mutually beneficial. OpenAI has some of the brightest minds in the field working on research problems that could help the entire community advance machine intelligence and make critical breakthroughs. And as a nonprofit, OpenAI has pledged to share its knowledge and collaborate with others to promote its goals.
Microsoft Research, itself a heavy contributor to open-source technologies, doesn’t want to own and restrict any of that knowledge. Rather, the company would very much like to have high-level AI research being conducted on Azure, to prove its efficacy and to attract other AI companies to do the same.
Microsoft benefits here because every company that relies on Azure becomes a paying customer of the company’s cloud services, which have become one of its fastest-growing and most lucrative divisions. Last year, CEO Satya Nadella said his company is targeting $20 billion in annual cloud revenue by 2018. As of August of this year, Microsoft is well on its way to that goal.
On a grander scale, Microsoft is hoping it can compete with Google and Facebook, both companies investing billions in the future of machine intelligence, to become a central player in the AI space. Microsoft is putting resources toward a bot platform for Skype and using its Bing search engine to build out its Cortana digital assistant. Yet if Microsoft can ensure that its technology is supporting and enabling the development of AI both inside and outside its own walls, it may not matter much if other tech giants have bigger and more popular consumer platforms.