Billionaire entrepreneur and venture capital investor Reid Hoffman worries about artificial intelligence — but not for doomsday reasons making headlines. Instead, he worries that the doomsday headlines are too negative.
So in recent months, Mr. Hoffman has taken an active thought-leadership approach, extolling the virtues of AI through blog posts, TV interviews and fireside chats. He has spoken to government officials around the world. He hosts three podcasts and a YouTube channel. In March, he co-authored a book “Improvisation” with the artificial intelligence tool GPT-4.
It’s all part of a scramble for public opinion around AI, preparing the way for an initial burst of fear and hype about the technology to morph into a coherent debate. Both sides will be chosen, regulations will be proposed, and technological tools will be politicized. For now, industry leaders like Mr. Hoffman are trying to push the terms of the discussion to their advantage, even if public concern only seems to grow.
“I’m beating the aggressive drum very loudly, and I’m doing it on purpose,” he said.
Few are as intertwined in the many facets of a rapidly evolving industry as Mr. Hoffman. The 55-year-old sits on the boards of 11 tech companies, including Microsoft, which is all-in on AI, and eight nonprofits. His venture capital firm, Greylock Partners, has invested in at least 37 AI companies. He was one of the first investors in the most famous AI startup, OpenAI, and recently left the board. He also helped found Inflection AI, an AI chatbot startup that has raised at least $225 million.
Then there’s his more abstract goal of “uplifting humanity,” or helping people improve their situation, a concept he conveys in an affable, matter-of-fact way. Mr. Hoffman sees AI as crucial to this mission, citing its potential to transform areas such as healthcare – “giving everyone a medical assistant”; and education – “giving everyone a mentor.”
“That’s part of the responsibility we should be thinking about here,” he said.
Mr. Hoffman is one of a small group of interconnected technology executives leading the development of artificial intelligence, many of whom also led the last internet boom. He was a member of the “PayPal Mafia” of former PayPal executives, which included Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. Artificial intelligence startup DeepMind backed by the latter two google acquisition, all three were early supporters of OpenAI. Jessica Livingston, founder of startup incubator Y Combinator, also invested in OpenAI; Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, served as president of Y Combinator.
Mr. Musk has now started his own artificial intelligence company X.AI. Mr. Thiel’s venture capital firm, Founders Fund, has backed more than 70 artificial intelligence companies, including OpenAI, according to PitchBook, which tracks startup investments. Mr. Altman has invested in several AI start-ups based on running OpenAI, which itself has invested in seven AI start-ups through its startup fund.and Y Combinator’s newest crop of startups include Seventy-eight companies focus on AI, almost double the number in the last group.
Technology leaders have mixed views on the risks and opportunities of AI and have been vocal about their views in the marketplace of ideas.
Mr. Musk recently warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence on Bill Maher’s show and in a sit-down with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York. Mr. Hoffman has explained the potential of the technology to Vice President Kamala Harris, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Last week, Mr Altman told a congressional hearing that “the benefits of the tools we have deployed to date far outweigh the risks.”
In Mr Hoffman’s view, warnings about the existential risks AI poses to humans overstate the technology’s role. He argues that other potential problems caused by AI—job loss, democratization, economic dislocation—have an obvious solution: more technology.
“The solutions lie in the future, not in the past,” he said.
It’s a tough sell to a public that has seen the harmful effects of technology over the past decade, including social media misinformation and self-driving car accidents. Oded Netzer, a professor at Columbia Business School, said the stakes are greater this time around.
“It’s not just the risk, it’s the pace at which the risk is developing,” Mr. Netzer said of tech companies’ handling of AI. “I don’t think we can hope or trust that the industry will regulate itself.”
Mr Hoffman said his pro-AI campaign was about building trust where it was broken. “That’s not to say there won’t be some hazards in certain areas,” he said. “The question is can we learn and iterate to a better state?”
Mr. Hoffman has been thinking about this question since he studied symbolic systems at Stanford University in the late 1980s.There, he imagined how artificial intelligence would facilitate “our Prometheus moment,” he said in a speech youtube video from March. “We can make these new things, and we can travel with them.”
After working at PayPal and co-founding professional social network LinkedIn in 2002, Mr. Hoffman began investing in start-ups including Nauto, Nuro and Aurora Innovation, all of which focused on applying AI technology to transportation. He also joined DeepMind’s AI Ethics Committee.
What sets Mr. Hoffman apart from other venture capitalists is that his primary motivation is to do good for the world, said Mustafa Suleyman, a co-founder of DeepMind.
“How do we serve humanity? He keeps asking that question,” Mr Suleiman said.
When Mr. Suleyman began working on his latest startup, Inflection AI, he found Mr. Hoffman’s strategic advice so useful that he asked him to help launch the company. Greylock invested in the startup last year.
Mr. Hoffman was there in the early days of OpenAI. In 2015, at an Italian restaurant in San Jose, California, he met with Mr. Musk and Mr. Altman to discuss the inception of the company, whose mission is to ensure the most powerful artificial intelligence “for the benefit of all humanity.”
Years later, when OpenAI was considering corporate partnerships, Mr. Hoffman said he encouraged Mr. Altman to meet with Microsoft, which bought LinkedIn in 2016.
Mr. Altman said he was initially concerned that Microsoft, a giant with a duty to prioritize its shareholders, might not take seriously OpenAI’s mission and the unusual structure that limited its profits. In any large, complex deal, Mr. Altman said, “everyone worries, ‘How is this really going to work?'”
Mr. Hoffman helped solve the problem. He discussed various issues with Mr. Altman as an OpenAI board member, a Microsoft board member, and himself, all while wearing a metaphorical “hat.”
“You have to be very aware of which hat you’re talking to,” mr hoffman says.
Mr. Altman said Mr. Hoffman helped OpenAI “model Microsoft and think about what they would care about, what they would be good at, what they wouldn’t be good at, and what would be similar to them for us.”
In 2019, OpenAI and Microsoft struck a $1 billion deal that puts them in the lead today. (Mr. Hoffman was not involved in the negotiations and abstained from each board vote to approve the deal to avoid a conflict of interest.)
More than a year ago, when Mr. Hoffman saw the progress OpenAI had made on its GPT-3 language model, he had another Prometheus moment. He immediately flipped the AI switch on nearly everything he works on, including Greylock’s new investments and existing startups, as well as his podcasts, books, and discussions with government officials.
“It’s basically like, ‘If it’s not this, it better be something absolutely important to society,'” he said.
OpenAI caused a stir when it released ChatGPT, a chatbot, in November. One of Greylock’s investments, Tome, immediately followed by integrating OpenAI’s GPT-3 technology into its “storytelling” software. According to Keith Peiris, the number of Tome users has exploded from a few thousand teams to 6 million, CEO of Tome.
Mr. Hoffman said his approach rests partly on his access to “extremely high-quality information streams” and partly through his business relationships with Microsoft, OpenAI and others. Some are through various philanthropic endeavors, such as Stanford’s Center for Artificial Intelligence.
Some are through his political connections. He poured millions into Democratic campaigns and political action committees. Barack Obama is a friend, he said.
Currently, he is using his influence to paint a picture of AI-driven progress. Tech insiders cheered on his cheerleading squad. People in other parts of the world are more skeptical.recent poll According to a survey conducted by Reuters and Ipsos, 61% of Americans believe that artificial intelligence may pose a threat to human beings.
Mr Hoffman thinks these fears are overblown. He expects the more specific problems facing AI, including its tendency to spit out incorrect information, will be resolved as tech companies upgrade their systems and deploy them to help.
Looking ahead, he said, there will be more investment, more podcasts, more conversations with government officials and more work on Inflection AI. He emphasized that the way to deal with the risks of artificial intelligence is to steer the world in a positive direction.
“I’m a techno-optimist, not a techno-utopian,” he said.
Cade Metz Contribution report.