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Reid Hoffman is on a mission: to prove that AI can improve humanity

Reid HoffmanBillionaire entrepreneur and venture capital investor, is concerned about artificial intelligence, but not about the reasons for the end of the world making headlines. Instead, he worries that doomsday headlines are too negative.

So in recent months, Hoffman has engaged in an aggressive thought leadership regimen to extol the virtues of AI. He has done it in blog posts, television interviews, and small talk. He has spoken with government officials from around the world. He hosts three podcasts and a YouTube channel. And in March, he published a book, “Impromptu,” co-written with the AI ​​tool. GPT-4.

It’s all part of the public land grab around AI in preparation for when the initial outburst of fear and hype about the technology settles into coherent debate. Sides will be chosen, regulations will be proposed, and tech tools will be politicized. For now, industry leaders like Mr. Hoffman are trying to turn the tables in their favor, even as public concerns only seem to grow.

“I’m beating the positive drum very loud, and I’m doing it deliberately,” he said.

Few are as entwined in as many facets of the fast-moving industry as Mr. Hoffman. The 55-year-old sits on the boards of 11 technology companies, including Microsoft, which has opted for AI, and eight non-profit organizations. His venture capital firm, Greylock Partners, has backed at least 37 AI companies. He was an early investor in OpenAI, the leading artificial intelligence startup, and recently left his board. He also helped find tipping AIan AI chatbot startup that has raised at least $225 million.

And then there’s his more abstract goal of “uplifting humanity” or helping people better their circumstances, a concept he conveys in a suave and matter-of-fact way. Mr. Hoffman believes that AI is central to that mission and, as examples, he points to its potential to transform areas such as health care — “to give to each one a medical assistant”; and education: “give everyone a tutor”.

“That is part of the responsibility that we should be thinking about here,” he said.

Hoffman is among a small group of interconnected tech executives leading the AI ​​charge, many of whom also led the latest Internet boom. He is a member of the “PayPal mob” of former PayPal executives that includes Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. The latter two backed DeepMind, an AI start-up that Google bought, and all three were early backers of OpenAI. Jessica Livingston, founder of start-up incubator Y Combinator, also poured money into OpenAI; sam altmanCEO of OpenAI, he was previously the president of Y Combinator.

Mr. Musk now has began his own AI company, X.AI. Mr. Thiel’s venture firm, Founders Fund, has backed more than 70 AI companies, including OpenAI, according to PitchBook, which tracks initial investments. Mr. Altman has invested in several AI startups in addition to running OpenAI, which in turn has invested in seven AI startups through his startup fund. And the latest batch of Y Combinator startups including 78 focused on AI, nearly double their last group.

Tech leaders differ on the risks and opportunities of AI and have been vigorously promoting their views in the marketplace of ideas.

Musk recently warned of the dangers of AI on Bill Maher’s show and in a meeting with New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. Mr. Hoffman explained the potential of the technology to Vice President Kamala Harris, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Last week, Mr. Altman saying in a congressional hearing that “the benefits of the tools we have implemented so far far outweigh the risks.”

In Mr. Hoffman’s opinion, warnings about the existential risk of AI to humanity overstate what the technology can do. And he believes that other potential AI-caused issues — job loss, destruction of democracy, disruption of the economy — have an obvious solution: more technology.

“Solutions live in the future, not consecrating the past,” he said.

That’s a tough talk for a public that has seen the ill effects of technology over the past decade, including disinformation social networks and autonomous vehicle accidents. And this time, the risks are even greater, said Oded Netzer, a professor at Columbia Business School.

“It’s not just the risks, it’s how fast they move,” Netzer said of tech companies’ handling of AI. “I don’t think we can expect or trust the industry to self-regulate.”

Hoffman’s pro-AI campaign, he said, is meant to build trust where it’s broken. “That’s not to say there won’t be some damage in some areas,” she said. “The question is, could we learn and iterate to a much better state?”

Mr. Hoffman has been thinking about that question since he studied symbol systems at Stanford University in the late 1980s. There, he envisioned how AI would facilitate “our Promethean moment,” he said in a Youtube video since March. “We can do these new things and we can travel with them.”

After working at PayPal and co-founding LinkedIn, the professional social network, in 2002, Mr. Hoffman began investing in startups, including Nauto, Nuro and Aurora Innovation, all focused on applying AI technology to transportation. He also joined an AI ethics committee at DeepMind.

Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind, said Hoffman differed from other venture capitalists in that his main motivation was to do good in the world.

“How can we be at the service of humanity? I was asking that question all the time,” Suleyman said.

When Mr. Suleyman started working on his latest startup, Inflection AI, he found Mr. Hoffman’s strategic advice so helpful that he asked him to help found the company. Greylock invested in the startup last year.

Mr. Hoffman was also there in the early days of OpenAI. At an Italian restaurant in San Jose, California, in 2015, he met with Musk and Altman to discuss the early days of the company, which is on a mission to ensure that the most powerful AI “benefits all of humanity.”

Several years later, when OpenAI was thinking about corporate partnerships, Hoffman said he encouraged Altman to meet with Microsoft, which had bought LinkedIn in 2016.

Altman said he was initially anxious that Microsoft, a giant with a duty to put its shareholders first, would not take OpenAI’s mission and unusual structure to cap its profits seriously. In any big, complicated deal, Altman said, “everyone is anxious to know, ‘How is this really going to work?'”

Mr. Hoffman helped smooth things over. He spoke to Mr. Altman about various concerns while wearing metaphorical “hats” as an OpenAI board member, a Microsoft board member, and as himself.

“You have to be very clear with what hat you are talking about”, Mr. Hoffman said.

Mr. Altman said that Mr. Hoffman helped OpenAI “model Microsoft and think about what would matter to them, what would they be good at, what would they be bad at, and similar to them to us.”

In 2019, OpenAI and Microsoft achieved a billion dollar deal, which has propelled them to a leadership position today. (To avoid a conflict of interest, Mr. Hoffman was not part of the negotiations and abstained from voting to approve the deal on each board.)

A little over a year ago, when Mr. Hoffman saw the progress that OpenAI was making in his GPT-3 language model, had another Promethean moment. He immediately flipped an AI switch on almost everything he worked on, including Greylock’s new investments and existing startups, as well as his podcast, book, and conversations with government officials.

“It was basically like, ‘If it’s not this, it better be something absolutely critical to society,’” he said.

OpenAI launched a chatbot, ChatGPT, in November, which became a sensation. A Greylock investment, Tome, integrated OpenAI’s GPT-3 technology into its “storytelling” software immediately afterward. The number of Tome users has skyrocketed to six million from a few thousand computers, said Keith Peiris, Executive Director of Tome.

Mr. Hoffman said his approach was shaped, in part, by his access to “very high-quality information streams.” Part of it is through its business relationships with Microsoft, OpenAI, and others. Some are through various philanthropies, such as the Stanford Center for Artificial Intelligence.

And some of it is through his political connections. He has invested millions of dollars in Democratic campaigns and political action committees. Barack Obama is a friend, he said.

For now, he’s using his influence to paint a picture of AI-powered progress. The tech-savvy applaud their cheerleaders. The rest of the world is more skeptical. a recent survey conducted by Reuters and Ipsos showed that 61 percent of Americans believe that AI could be a threat to humanity.

Mr. Hoffman dismisses those fears as exaggerated. He hopes that the more tangible problems facing AI, including its tendency to spitting out wrong informationit will be resolved as tech companies update their systems and roll them out to help.

Looking ahead, he said, there will be more investment, more podcasts, more conversations with government officials, and more work on Inflection AI. The way to navigate the risks of AI, she stressed, is to steer the world toward the positives.

“I’m a tech optimist, not a tech utopian,” he said.

cade metz contributed reporting.

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