Apr 25, 2023 - Economy & Business

Venture capital's big questions in the AI era

Animated illustration of a robot thinking, with ellipses moving inside its thought bubble.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Most venture capitalists seem to believe that artificial intelligence is the most transformative tech innovation — and investment opportunity — since mobile. Or, in some cases, since the wheel.

The big picture: Their certainty doesn't extend much further.

  • Some investors are betting big on startups working on core AI, such as developing their own large language models. This thesis suggests that AI will become akin to cloud computing, which is dominated by behemoths like Amazon and Microsoft.
  • Some investors are focusing on the myriad of services that seek to leverage core AI, from fintech to health care to enterprise software to climate. Their comp is the web, which was revolutionary but, arguably, more a commodity than a blockbuster business. The real gold rush was everything built on top of the web, including Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Zoom out: This is much different than past VC investment hype cycles like crypto or nanotech, in that there are few skeptics.

  • Yes, plenty fear the the doomsday power of unregulated AI, or of AI that's regulated in large countries but not elsewhere. But those concerns aren't dampening disbursements.

By the numbers: There are all sorts of data sets about "AI startup" investment. Take them all with a grain of salt.

  • AI has become a ubiquitous marketing buzzword, much like "internet" once was. If a company ever asked one of its engineers to fool around with ChatGPT, it's likely now calling itself AI-enabled.

The bottom line: Most VCs agree that the next great tech story is currently being written, and hope to be secondary characters in its most consequential chapters. The plot, however, remains a work in progress.

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