Feb 26, 2024 - Technology

Microsoft shifts AI focus off Sam Altman

Illustration of an open house window with panes resembling the Microsoft Windows logo. Outside the open window is a bright blue sky filled with glowing binary code.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Microsoft launched its AI principles Monday, signaling years of major investments to come and a determination to spread its AI bets.

Why it matters: Microsoft's new principles codify how the company will pursue a "broad array of AI partnerships" beyond its $13 billion investment in OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT.

  • Brad Smith, the company's president, told Axios that Microsoft can't win at AI alone — heralding a "big change" by pivoting towards support for open source developers.
  • OpenAI and Google now build mostly closed AI models, while Meta touts its open source model.
  • Smith also told Axios that big tech's money will be essential to provide the "fundamental infrastructure for AI to advance."

Driving the news: Smith announced a "strategic partnership" with Mistral, a French open source AI model developer, making its models available to Microsoft's Azure cloud customers.

  • Smith described Mistral as a standard-bearer for the rise of "important AI models outside the United States."

The intrigue: Microsoft is keen to move the AI focus beyond Sam Altman.

  • "I think Sam is brilliant," Smith said, "but just as the printing press quickly evolved beyond Gutenberg, AI is quickly evolving beyond any single individual."

By the numbers: Microsoft now offers 1500 open source models out of around 1600 "models as a service" available through Microsoft Azure cloud.

  • "We're on a path to spend somewhere in the ballpark of $50 billion this year (on AI), compared to the Chips Act, which is $52 billion over five years," Smith said, while rejecting the idea that the world needs $7 trillion of AI infrastructure in coming years, a reported fundraising target of Altman's.

Between the lines: Microsoft wants regulators to view the AI economy through a wide lens — and to see its OpenAI investment as a fraction of its overall AI spending.

  • Microsoft defines the AI economy as nine layers of technology, a complex web of partnerships, and a wide diversity of AI models — all of which would be hard to dominate in ways that raise antitrust concerns.
  • But since Google runs a popular app store and "mobile platforms are the most popular gateway to consumers," Microsoft is hinting that Google could be the one company at risk of hurting AI competition — a suggestion DOJ prosecutors explored in court in 2023, and which Google denies.

The big picture: Before officials turned up the heat on platforms and social media companies, it was Microsoft that had spent two decades tangling with antitrust regulators.

What they're saying: Smith said the new AI principles will make "our infrastructure and services accessible, treating people fairly, and fulfilling societal responsibilities."

The bottom line: "If experience teaches us anything, it's that we'll all need to succeed together," Smith said.

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