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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new report shows that cripplingly high computational costs mean just a handful of big companies are able to do top-flight AI research.

Why it matters: AI will do more than any other technology to shape our future. If only the Googles and the Microsofts of the world have the resources needed to move the field forward, it will solidify their power — and possibly strangle innovation.

By the numbers: It likely cost the Microsoft-funded research group OpenAI more than $10 million to train GPT-3, its cutting-edge, new natural language processing algorithm, according to the annual State of AI Report published Thursday.

  • That's because these models are created by essentially throwing ever-increasing amounts of data at the thorny problems of AI. Processing all of that data takes lots of computational power — and compute costs money.
  • What this means "is that a handful of well-capitalized entities are now in control of artificial general intelligence research," says Ian Hogarth, a visiting professor at University College of London and one of the co-authors of the report.

Of note: OpenAI was originally founded as a nonprofit with the purpose of pursuing AI research for the benefit of all humanity.

  • But last year it set up a for-profit arm and accepted a billion-dollar investment from Microsoft.
  • Last month Microsoft announced it would be exclusively licensing GPT-3.

What they're saying: "This is a direct reflection of the cost of doing frontier research in compute and talent," says Hogarth.

Context: In the future the costs of developing these massive models may become prohibitive even for the richest tech companies.

  • The report found that without major research breakthroughs, reducing the error rate for ImageNet — a massive database used for visual recognition research — from 11.5% to 1% could cost 100 billion billion dollars. (Yes that's two "billions.")
  • All that compute requires lots of energy, which in turn means that AI research has a growing environmental footprint.

The bottom line: It doesn't make sense scientifically or ethically for high-level AI research to be done only by those companies that can afford it, but changing the paradigm won't be easy.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Nov 19, 2020 - Technology

Survey: Executives are prioritizing AI skills

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Executives and senior managers say they will prioritize hiring candidates who have skills in automation and AI, according to a survey first shared with Axios.

Why it matters: Automation hasn't yet transformed the business world, in part because companies don't yet know how to harness these new technologies. If that's going to happen, they'll need workers who know how to use AI.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Nov 18, 2020 - Technology

The robo-job apocalypse is being delayed

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A sprawling new report makes the case that automation and AI won't lead to widespread job destruction anytime soon.

Why it matters: Technological advances in AI and automation will have an enormous impact on the workforce, but it may take decades for those effects to be fully felt. That gives business leaders and politicians a last chance to change labor and education policies that have left too many workers locked in low-quality, low-paying jobs.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

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