Microsoft Corp. [US:MSFT] said Monday it is making a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment in OpenAI, substantially bolstering its relationship with the startup behind the viral ChatGPT chatbot as the software giant looks to expand the use of artificial intelligence in its products.
Microsoft said the latest partnership builds upon the company’s 2019 and 2021 investments in OpenAI.
The companies didn’t disclose the financial terms of the partnership. Microsoft had been discussing investing as much as $10 billion in OpenAI, according to people familiar with the matter. A representative for Microsoft declined to comment on the final number.
OpenAI was in talks this month to sell existing shares in a tender offer that would value the company at roughly $29 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported, making it one of the most valuable U.S. startups on paper despite generating little revenue.
The investment shows the tremendous resources Microsoft is devoting toward incorporating artificial-intelligence software into its suite of products, ranging from its design app Microsoft Designer to search app Bing. It also will help bankroll the computing power OpenAI needs to run its various products on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.
The strengthening relationship with OpenAI has bolstered Microsoft’s standing in a race with other big tech companies that also have been pouring resources into artificial intelligence to enhance existing products and develop new uses for businesses and consumers. Alphabet Inc.’s Google, in particular, has invested heavily in AI and infused the technology into its operations in various ways, from improving navigation recommendations in its maps tools to enhancing image recognition for photos to enabling wording suggestions in Gmail.
Google has its own sophisticated chatbot technology, known as LaMDA, which gained notice last year when one of the company’s engineers claimed the bot was sentient, a claim Google and outside experts dismissed. Google, though, hasn’t made that technology widely available like OpenAI did with ChatGPT, whose ability to churn out human-like, sophisticated responses to all manner of linguistic prompts has captured public attention.
Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella said last week his company plans to incorporate artificial-intelligence tools into all of its products and make them available as platforms for other businesses to build on. Mr. Nadella said that his company would move quickly to commercialize tools from OpenAI.
Analysts have said that OpenAI’s technology could one day threaten Google’s stranglehold on internet search, by providing quick, direct responses to queries rather than lists of links. Others have pointed out that the chatbot technology still suffers from inaccuracies and isn’t well-suited to certain types of queries.
“The viral launch of ChatGPT has caused some investors to question whether this poses a new disruption threat to Google Search,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a note last month. “While we believe the near-term risk is limited—we believe the use case of search (and paid search) is different than AI-driven content creation—we are not dismissive of threats from new, unique consumer offerings.”
OpenAI, led by technology investor Sam Altman, began as a nonprofit in 2015 with $1 billion in pledges from Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and other backers. Its goal has long been to develop technology that can achieve what has been a holy grail for AI researchers: artificial general intelligence, where machines are able to learn and understand anything humans can.
Microsoft first invested in OpenAI in 2019, giving the company $1 billion to enhance its Azure cloud-computing platform. That gave OpenAI the computing resources it needed to train and improve its artificial-intelligence algorithms and led to a series of breakthroughs.
OpenAI has released a new suite of products in recent months that industry observers say represent a significant step toward that goal and could pave the way for a host of new AI-driven consumer applications.
In the fall, it launched Dall-E 2, a project that allowed users to generate art from strings of text, and then made ChatGPT public on Nov. 30. ChatGPT has become something of a sensation among the tech community given its ability to deliver immediate answers to questions ranging from “Who was George Washington Carver?” to “Write a movie script of a taco fighting a hot dog on the beach.”
Mr. Altman said the company’s tools could transform technology similar to the invention of the smartphone and tackle broader scientific challenges.
“They are incredibly embryonic right now, but as they develop, the creativity boost and new superpowers we get—none of us will want to go back,” Mr. Altman said in an interview in December.
Mr. Altman’s decision to create a for-profit arm of OpenAI garnered criticism from some in the artificial-intelligence community who said it represented a move away from OpenAI’s roots as a research lab that sought to benefit humanity over shareholders. OpenAI said it would cap profit at the company, diverting the remainder to the nonprofit group.