Microsoft to partner with Elon Musk-backed non-profit in hopes of ‘democratizing access to AI’


Microsoft recently announced its partnership with OpenAI, a non-profit backed by Tesla’s Elon Musk. Announcing this in a blog post, OpenAI stated that this partnership is primarily intended at “democratizing access to AI.”

According to this deal, OpenAI will now use Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service as the primary platform for conducting cutting-edge research. In turn, Microsoft can now tap into OpenAI’s bench of robotics and experts, which will consequently make Azure the best service for building around AI-powered software.

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Considering the rising importance and potential of AI in building an innovative future, this move could be a well-calculated one between the two companies.

OpenAI was launched last year as an initiative backed by Tesla’s Elon Musk, former Google research scientist Ilya Sutskever, former Stripe CTO Greg Brockman, and Y Combinator's Sam Altman. Its aim has always been to develop AI technology which fosters long-term benefits for society as opposed to the plethora of fast-growing software that is either profit-motivated or potentially harmful in the long run.

As for why it decided on this partnership, OpenAI stated that they were impressed by Microsoft’s Azure and its hardware configurations, which are “optimized for deep learning.” This factor fits into their requirement for greater access to faster computers, something that is essential to emerging AI technologies like reinforcement learning and generative models.

In a recorded interview with Microsoft AI Research Group president Harry Shum, OpenAI Co-founder Sam Altman said, “Microsoft is the large technology company most aligned with us in terms of the goal of democratization to AI technology. This is our most important goal.” He also added that the revolutionary technology they are looking to create should be used by everyone, not be concentrated within a single government or company.

According to Business Standard, Microsoft’s dive into artificial intelligence with the help of OpenAI technology can give it a boost over the ‘relative upstart’ Google Cloud in the months to come. Scott Guthrie, Executive VP of Cloud and Enterprise at Microsoft, believes that eventually every single application is going to tap into AI technology. When that happens, he wants Microsoft to be the leading company that developers will turn to when it comes to incorporating this.

To him, the partnership with OpenAI is thus one of natural progression, taking into account the fact that the latter seems to be heading towards the same goals. As a result, their collaboration will help to “jointly build an even richer ecosystem around artificial intelligence and help learn as fast as possible.”

OpenAI may have also picked Microsoft Azure to be its main cloud platform due to the latter’s existing support for AI workloads. This can be seen especially through services like Azure Batch and Azure Machine Learning. This, coupled with the fact that the company also offers developer’s access to a high-powered GPU-centric virtual machine, makes the decision (at least on paper) appear foolproof.

Microsoft, in turn, aims to benefit here because each company that relies on Azure automatically becomes a paying customer for its cloud services. This seems to be working according to the blueprint of CEO Satya Nadella, who, in a speech last year, said that his company is targeting $20 billion in annual cloud revenue by 2018.

Greater access to AI technology through the OpenAI services could potentially make Microsoft a key player in the AI space, set to compete against the likes of Google and Facebook.