Microsoft’s Mustafa Suleyman says he likes Sam Altman a lot, believes he is sincere about AI safety

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In an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday, Microsoft AI CEO Mustafa Suleyman made it clear that he admires OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, using the metaphor of winning a bicycle race, asked what Microsoft’s giant’s plan would be when its AI future isn’t so dependent on OpenAI. But Suleyman demurred.

“I don’t buy the metaphor that there’s a finish line. That’s another misconception,” he said. “We have to stop looking at everything as a brutal race.”

He then followed the Microsoft corporate line about his company’s arrangement with OpenAI, in which it invested a reported $10 billion through a combination of cash and cloud credits. The deal gives Microsoft a large stake in OpenAI’s for-profit business, and allows it to embed its AI models in Microsoft’s stuff and sell its technology to Microsoft cloud customers. Some reports suggest Microsoft may also be entitled to some of OpenAI’s payments.

“It’s true that we have fierce competition with them,” Suleyman said of OpenAI. “They’re an independent company. We don’t own or control them. We don’t even have any board members. So they do their own thing completely on their own. But we have a deep partnership. I’m a great friend of Sam’s, I have a lot of respect for his work, I trust him. And it’s going to be that way for many years to come,” Suleyman said.

This close/distant relationship is important to Suleyman. Microsoft’s investors and enterprise customers appreciate this close relationship. But regulators got curious, and in April, the EU agreed that its investment was not a true acquisition. If that changes, it’s very likely that regulatory involvement will change, too.

Suleyman said he trusts Altman on AI safety

In a way, Suleyman was the Sam Altman of AI before OpenAI. He has spent much of his career competing with OpenAI and is known for his arrogance.

Suleyman was the founder of AI pioneer DeepMind and sold it to Google in 2014. Bloomberg reported in 2019 that he was placed on administrative leave following allegations of bullying employees, then moved on to other Google roles before leaving the company in 2022 and joining Greylock Partners as a venture partner. A few months later, he and Greylock’s Reid Hoffman, who is a Microsoft board member, launched Inflection AI to build their own LLM chatbot, among other goals.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella tried to hire Sam Altman last year, but failed, when OpenAI fired him and then quickly reinstated him. After that, Microsoft hired Suleyman and most of Inflexion’s staff in March, leaving him with a small part of the company and a big check. In his new role at Microsoft, Suleyman is auditing OpenAI’s code, as Semaphore reported earlier this month. As one of OpenAI’s previous big rivals, he’s now going to dive deep inside the crown-jewel Frenemy competitor.

There’s another wrinkle in all of this. OpenAI was founded with the purpose of conducting AI safety research, in order to prevent rogue AI from one day destroying the human race. In 2023, when he was still a competitor of OpenAI, Suleyman released a book called “The Coming Wave: Technology, Power and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma” together with researcher Michael Bhaskar. The book discusses the dangers of AI and ways to prevent them.

A group of former OpenAI employees signed a letter earlier this month expressing their fears that OpenAI and other AI companies were not taking security seriously enough.

When asked about this, Suleman also expressed his love and trust for Altman, but also said that he would like to see both regularity and a slower pace.

“Maybe it’s because I’m a Brit with European tendencies, but I’m not afraid of regulation in the way that everybody else seems to be by default,” he said, describing all this finger-pointing by former employees as “healthy dialogue”. “I think it’s a good thing that technologists and entrepreneurs and CEOs of companies like me and Sam, who I love so much and who I think are brilliant” are talking about regulation, he added. “He’s not cynical, he’s sincere. He really believes in it.”

But he also said, “Friction is going to be our friend here. These technologies are going to become so powerful, they will be so intimate, they will be so ubiquitous, that this is a moment where it’s okay to take stock.” If all this dialogue slows AI development by six to 18 months or more, “it’s time well spent.”

Everything is very smooth between these players.

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI
Image Credit: TechCrunch

Suleiman seeks cooperation with China, wants to use AI in classrooms

Suleiman also made some interesting comments on other issues. On the AI ​​race with China:

“With all due respect to my good friends in D.C. and the military industrial complex, if this is the default frame that this can only be a new Cold War, that’s exactly what it will be because it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’ll be afraid that we’re afraid we’re going to be adversarial so they’ll have to be adversarial and that’s only going to escalate,” he said. “We’re going to have to find ways to cooperate, respect them, while also acknowledging that we have a different set of values.”

Then, he also said that China is “building its own technology ecosystem, and they’re spreading it around the world. We should really pay close attention to that.”

When asked what he thought about kids using AI for schoolwork, Suleiman, who said he doesn’t have kids, downplayed it. “I think we should be a little bit careful about fearing the downside of every tool, you know, like when calculators came out, there was kind of an instinctive reaction of, oh, no, everybody’s going to be able to solve all the equations right away. And that’s going to make us even dumber because we’re not going to be able to do mental arithmetic.”

He envisions a time very soon when AI will be like a teacher’s assistant, perhaps chatting live in the classroom as the AI’s verbal skills improve. “What would it feel like for a great teacher or educator to have a deep conversation with AI that’s live and in front of their audience?”

The bottom line is that if we want those who are creating and profiting from AI to rule over humanity and protect it from its worst effects, we are having unrealistic expectations.

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