Elon Musk funds smart machines
Are you frightened by the notion of intelligent machines dominating humankind? Me neither. Maybe that’s because in college I studied history, which suggests that humans eventually harness technology, not the other way around. Had I studied computer science, or made a career in it, like the founders of the new research project OpenAI, I might also be obsessed by the infinite possibilities offered by intelligent computers.
The entrepreneurs and scientists who’ve started OpenAI, including Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman and a bevy of academics who focus full time on artificial intelligence, want to put their thumbs on the scale in favor of humans. Their plan, neatly laid out in a manifesto published Friday, is to fund research for non-commercial uses that can be widely shared. They say they’ll spend up to $1 billion on the project, though they’ll ramp the expenditures slowly.
Artificial intelligence is a divisive issue in Nerdland. At the mind-expanding TED conference in March, University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom cautioned against our “ability to keep a superintelligent genie locked up its bottle.” The AI researcher Oren Etzioni, who runs Paul Allen’s AI research initiative, rebutted Bostrom with the argument that “AI won’t exterminate us. It will empower us to tackle real problems that help humanity.” (Here’s an overview of their smackdown.)
Hollywood, no surprise, prefers the superintelligent genie scenario. My recent leisure-time research on AI has included the TV show “Humans” and the film Ex Machina, both of which suggest supersmart humanoids are absolutely to be feared and also primarily will come in the form of gorgeous, young model/actors.
What to make of the new Silicon Valley-backed research project? Fortune’s Stacey Higginbotham wisely laments the plethora of tech big shots and absence of policymakers and consumer advocates in the mix. She also reports on another robotics-oriented group that coincidentally came into being last week.
There’s plenty to fear in the world these days. I’m going to keep AI on the very long list of my concerns, with the added bonus of being a supremely entertaining topic.
BITS AND BYTES
Another activist investor takes on Yahoo. SpringOwl Asset Management is agitating for a plan that would replace CEO Marissa Mayer with an operations expert who could save more than $2 billion in annual costs. The hedge fund isn’t a major shareholder, but its managing director Eric Jackson is approaching others to build support for its idea. Two other big investors, Starboard Value and Canyon Capital, are pushing Yahoo to sell off or spin out its core business. Meanwhile, yet another high-profile executive is leaving: Prashant Fuloria, senior vice president of advertising products. (Wall Street Journal, Re/code)
EMC-Dell deal clears hurdle. When the two companies announced their $67 billion union in October, the deal included a clause the allowed EMC to “go shop” for a better deal. The deadline for it to find one expired over the weekend. (TechCrunch)
Seattle considers unionization request by Uber and Lyft drivers. The rights of freelance contractors who work for “on demand” startups are the subject of numerous class-action lawsuits against high-profile companies ranging from ride-sharing giant Uber to grocery delivery service Instacart. Now, the App-Based Drivers Association wants to help drivers unionize, so workers can negotiate collectively on issues such as minimum rates. (New York Times)
Fantasy sports sites get last-minute reprieve in New York. DraftKings and FanDuel can continue operating in the state until at least Jan. 4, while courts consider their legality. The attorney general wants to shut down fantasy sports sites, which he believes encourage illegal betting. (New York Times)
Microsoft apologizes, backpedals on cloud storage strategy. Last month, the software giant stopped offering unlimited data storage space to certain Office 365 subscribers. Because of the backlash, Microsoft has eased its position somewhat and will restore that option for current users who request it. (Computerworld)
Tech industry urges Congress to stay out of net neutrality fight. Republicans in both the House and Senate are trying to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing the net neutrality regulation passed last June by choking off funding. Several tech consortiums—representing companies including Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—have urged them to stand down. The basic tenet of net neutrality is that the Internet and other telecommunications should be regulated like other public utilities. That makes it difficult for service providers to prioritize certain types of content over others. Naturally, the telecommunications industry has appealed to the U.S. legal system. Which side should win? Two essays on Fortune offer opposing opinions. Take your pick: “Like It or Not, the FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules Are Here to Stay” or “The Biggest Threat to U.S. Internet Companies Now.” (Ars Technica, Fortune)
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ONE MORE THING
The trouble with hoverboards. The world’s biggest electronics show, CES, has banned them. So have three major U.S. airlines. Now, Amazon wants makers selling the products on its electronic marketplace to prove they have passed muster when it comes to safety. (Fortune)