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Open-source AI wars not about openness

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Becka Bowyer

Elon Musk’s artificial-intelligence startup xAI will open-source Grok, its chatbot rival to OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

David Widder

Postdoctoral Fellow, Cornell Tech

David Widder, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell Tech, examines ethical, political and economic aspects of ‘open’ AI systems – with a recent study focusing on big tech and concentrated power.

Widder says:

“The ‘open’ wars continue to rage, but as usual, it's not really about openness. We're witnessing a public spat between wealthy businessmen, not a high-minded disagreement about whether openness in AI development is good for humanity.

“OpenAI launched as a nonprofit research lab in 2015, with a stated policy that encouraged all employees to ‘publish their work, whether as papers, blog posts, or code’, and promised to share any patent filings with the world at large. However, even at this early stage, their commitment to openness was not as expansive as their stated policy. Greg Brockman previously said in 2016 that doing all research in the open is not necessarily the best path and Ilya Sutskever, in 2023, made their minimally open stance more clear – saying 'it’s going to be completely obvious to everyone that open-sourcing AI is just not wise'.

“However, whereas Sutskever misleadingly presented this as a recent and wise change of heart, this is revealed to be false by both Brockman's 2016 comments and Sutskever's own 2016 email to Musk, Brockman and CEO Sam Altman, recently revealed as part of ongoing litigation: ‘As we get closer to building AI, it will make sense to start being less open. The Open in OpenAI means that everyone should benefit from the fruits of AI after its [sic] built, but it’s totally OK to not share the science’. To this, Musk replied, ‘Yup.’ In short, only a few months into OpenAI's founding, the leaders agreed not to open source what they were building.

“Now that OpenAI is effectively an operating unit of Microsoft – which provides its funding, compute and exclusively licenses the ‘fruits’ of OpenAI's development – it seems like Musk is angry that he doesn't get to share in the profits. He is hiding his anger under the more noble guise of openness. We should all be angry that we won't share in these fruits either, even while AI steals our own personal online content as training data and incurs massive climate effects that we all will feel.”

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