Axios AI+

A floating, translucent blue 3D render of the human brain.

February 29, 2024

Hi, it's Ryan, on the way home from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona — where the push to make AI run on smartphones is bringing MWC to a tipping point: It's now a 95,000-person tech conference, rather than a telecom event. Today's AI+ is 1,228 words, a 4.5-minute read.

Situational awareness: The SEC has been investigating whether investors were misled last November when OpenAI's board fired CEO Sam Altman, per the Wall Street Journal.

1 big thing: Mistral, it's French for AI

Animated illustration of a robot putting a beret on its head and growing a goatee.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Paris-based Mistral — a nine-month-old startup with only a few dozen employees — is corralling enough investment and attention, including a high-profile Microsoft partnership, to put it in the top tier of AI companies globally.

Why it matters: Mistral is much younger than OpenAI, yet the French company's top model already rivals GPT-4's performance in accuracy and common sense reasoning.

Driving the news: In the past week, Mistral launched its Mistral Large model, which now ranks second only to GPT-4 in several industry benchmarks.

  • In addition to the Microsoft deal, under which Mistral made its models available to Azure cloud customers while giving the giant a small stake, Mistral also has a deal with Amazon, making it the seventh foundation model developer available to Amazon Bedrock customers.
  • Mistral also launched Le Chat, a chatbot that's "multilingual by design."
  • IBM announced it's making available an optimized version of one of Mistral's model on its WatsonX platform that it says operates much more speedily than unoptimized versions.

Catch up quick: Mistral's funders include Nvidia and Salesforce, in rounds led by Andreessen Horowitz that value the company at $2 billion.

  • The company's founders are led by 31-year-old CEO Arthur Mensch, a former AI engineer at Google DeepMind, and Timothée Lacroix and Guillaume Lample, former classmates of Mensch's who worked at Meta's Paris AI lab.

The big picture: The stars are aligning for Mistral for several reasons.

  • It suits big companies such as Microsoft to bet on a French startup, as they're looking to reassure regulators around the world of their good faith and to tap different language markets.
  • Some of Mistral's models are open, providing a counterweight to Microsoft's bets on closed models such as OpenAI.
  • Along with Google's Gemini model stumbles, Mistral is basking in its models' reputation for producing relatively unopinionated responses.

Context: The French tech scene has been gaining scale and momentum in recent years, propelled in part by the overt embrace by President Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to establish Paris as the EU's tech hub after Brexit.

  • Google unveiled a new 300-person Paris AI engineering lab Feb. 15.
  • HuggingFace, founded by three French engineers, has become the AI industry's go-to scoreboard and communal space.

What they're saying: Mistral speaks the language of Silicon Valley VCs.

  • Mensch says he offers "unparalleled value" to customers and told the Wall Street Journal his ambition is to create "the most capital-efficient company" in AI.
  • Mistral Large cost only around $20 million to train, Mensch told the Journal — compared to $50 million or more for OpenAI's models.

Reality check: Microsoft's investment in OpenAI is around 800 times greater than its investment in Mistral: $13 billion versus $16 million.

The intrigue: Mistral was lobbying in both Paris and Brussels just weeks after it launched, as officials negotiated the bloc's comprehensive AI Act.

  • The firm's unusual lobbying effort helped to water down requirements on developers of general-purpose AI, mirroring goals of some of the big tech companies Mistral now partners with.
  • Eyebrows are raised in Brussels, as some officials and journalists suggest Mistral may have been acting as a big tech lobbying front.
  • The tables turned when Mistral announced its Microsoft deal: the EU will look into the agreement for any evidence that it's designed to limit competition.

Fun fact: Mistral is good at picking names.

  • "Le Chat" is a play on words — the chatbot's name is also French for "cat."
  • The company's name means "masterful" in a southern French dialect — and also refers to the northwesterly wind that whips through southern France.

2. AI's next job: public speaking coach

A man in a suit looks at a speech podium on his smartphone screen

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Generative AI tools can help you write a speech — and deliver it with confidence, reports Axios' Eleanor Hawkins.

Why it matters: A majority of people are terrified of public speaking, and AI-powered tools like Yoodli are looking to ease their minds.

Zoom in: Yoodli — founded in 2021 by Google alum Varun Puri and former Apple employee Esha Joshi — has raised more than $7 million from investors, including Paul Allen's AI Institute.

  • It has also struck partnership deals with public speaking organization Toastmasters and executive search firm Korn Ferry.

Between the lines: Generative AI can bring coaching that was the preserve of Fortune 500 executives to anyone, says Puri.

How it works: The platform can assess uploaded videos of speeches, presentations and pitches by providing feedback on things like delivery speed, word choice, repetition and eye contact.

  • The plug-in can also run in the background of a video call or meeting — though it only hears and records the speech of the Yoodli user — and will provide real-time notes on how you're communicating during the meeting.
  • Yoodli says it can help users prepare for tough conversations — like a request for a raise, or a TV interview — by gaming out the conversation.

Yes, but: Neither speech coaches nor the Yoodli co-founders view this as a replacement for human advice.

3. Humanoid robots vacuum up funding

Figure 01, the first-generation humanoid robot from Sunnyvale, California startup Figure.

First humanoid robot from the startup Figure. Photo courtesy of Figure

Humanoid robot startup Figure has drawn a $675 million investment from Jeff Bezos, AI chipmaker Nvidia, ChatGPT-maker OpenAI and others, reports Axios' Jennifer A. Kingson.

Why it matters: Bipedal robots with dexterous hands are joining the labor force this year, a trend that's expected to gain steam.

Driving the news: The infusion of capital for Figure, a Silicon Valley startup founded by "flying taxi" pioneer Brett Adcock, gives it a valuation of $2.6 billion.

  • Investors include Microsoft, the OpenAI Startup Fund, Nvidia, the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund and Jeff Bezos (through Bezos Expeditions).
  • Others include Parkway Venture Capital, Intel Capital, Align Ventures and ARK Invest.

The intrigue: Figure and OpenAI will also collaborate on developing next-generation AI models for humanoid robots.

The big picture: There's an arms race among humanoid robot makers — which include Tesla and Boston Dynamics — to bring anthropomorphic machines into the workplace.

  • Figure's robots are joining BMW's production line.
  • Amazon is testing Digit, from Agility Robotics, for warehouse work.
  • NASA has a partnership with Apptronik to develop its humanoid robot, Apollo, for space exploration.
  • Sanctuary AI's robot Phoenix was named a TIME 2023 Best Invention after it "picked, packed, tagged, labeled, and folded clothes at a clothing store in Langley, Canada."

Watch: See videos of Figure's robot moving a crate to a conveyor belt and making coffee, Tesla's Optimus taking a stroll and Sanctuary's Phoenix taking your blood pressure.

What's next: "I think the next 24 months you'll start seeing humanoid robots in the real world," Adcock tells Axios.

4. Training data

  • Meta's senior leadership thinks its forthcoming large language model, Llama 3, is "too safe" and wants it to be able to handle more contentious questions before its July launch. (The Information)
  • FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed on Wednesday to make it harder to stalk people using smart car surveillance tools. (Axios)
  • Wendy's plan to introduce "dynamic pricing" — like Uber's surge pricing, but for food — didn't go down well. (Axios)
  • From The Sphere to MOMA, Refik Anadol's integrations of AI are making him the artist of the moment. (The Economist)
  • Trading places: Sridhar Ramaswamy is the new CEO of Snowflake.

5. + This

AI-assisted instant books ate up Kara Swisher's search results on Amazon: I counted 16 suddenly available biographies and summaries of her "Burn Book" for sale the day after its release.

Thanks to Scott Rosenberg and Megan Morrone for editing this newsletter.