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The story of a leaked Meta document and the end of the AI arms race

The story of a leaked Meta document and the end of the AI arms race

The AI arms race is over. It is not clear who the winners are. But it is not the big tech companies or global regulators. It is now in the hands of everyone, virtuous and evil.

In 2003 Microsoft launched a famous campaign called “Get the Facts”. A large cut of its revenue was derived from its server operating system, called Windows Server. But the Linux operating system, open-source, free and built by volunteer developers was beginning to threaten that cash cow. Microsoft was clearly rattled. This needed to be nipped in the bud. 

The campaign quoted studies that purported to show that Windows Server was more reliable, more secure and more cost-effective than Linux. The studies were funded by Microsoft, and some were later found to be a little, um, dodgy. Microsoft discontinued the campaign in 2007. 

Guess who is arguably the largest purveyor of Linux now? Microsoft. Linux now nestles reliably, securely and cost-effectively at the core of their modern server operating systems. 

The message here is not if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em (although there is that). The message is simpler. It is that you can’t beat open source. You cannot protect software IP, legally or technically, not without enormous litigious expense. Those days are gone. 

This brings us to the furious past few months of AI, starting with the release of ChatGPT on 22 November 2022. This software was from Microsoft-funded OpenAI, followed soon after by Google with its Bard/PalM. Followed by their determined attempts to hold on to the secret sauce as long as possible in order to milk value. 

And from other sectors of society, a plea from various and sundry big thinkers to pause or even stop the entire exercise until dangers were correctly weighed and measured.

It seemed as though the future of AI was certain to be constrained by a few corporate giants on the one side and by potentially rushed regulation on the other. 

A little history

But before we get to what happened last week in the world of AI, a little history:

The open-source movement first started gaining steam in the 1980s with the founding of the Free Software Foundation in 1983 by Ricard Stallman. Its mission was to promote the development and distribution of free software, a reaction to the impermeable closed walls of the big tech companies of the time – IBM, HP, Honeywell, Burroughs and others. Many software developers had come out of universities where the sharing of knowledge was the very fuel of innovation, and so this pushback against corporate cloaking had much support.

As a result, and in fairly short order through the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and beyond, we saw Linux and Apache and MySQL and Firefox. And, of course, Google Android, which created a robust and welcome competitor to Apple OS (which remains a closed source and viciously protected).

There are other closed-source companies besides Apple that still thrive, like Oracle and Salesforce. But most of the world has largely moved on to open source now, with massive libraries of shared IP available at giant free digital warehouses like Gitthub, available to all under liberal licensing conditions. Many a billion-dollar company has first taken on fuel there. 

So, back to AI. On 4 May a document written by an anonymous Google insider was leaked to a site called Semianalysis. It was titled “We Have No Moat”. As in ‘we have no protection against competitors, you nincompoops.’ The Economist, in an article here, compares the import of this document to the famous Bill Gates ‘Internet tidal wave’ 1995 post which turned the company on a dime to embrace the internet, which it had not previously seen as important. 

The post is really worth reading in its entirety. It can be found here. But you can get the general idea from the first few lines (remember, this is a Google person talking):   

‘We Have No Moat
And neither does OpenAI 

We’ve done a lot of looking over our shoulders at OpenAI. Who will cross the next milestone? What will the next move be?

But the uncomfortable truth is, we aren’t positioned to win this arms race and neither is OpenAI. While we’ve been squabbling, a third faction has been quietly eating our lunch.

I’m talking, of course, about open source. Plainly put, they are lapping us. Things we consider “major open problems” are solved and in people’s hands today. [Italics and bold type in the original post.]”

The rest of the document that follows on from these opening lines is a plea from the author to the management at Google to abandon closed-source software. It argues articulately that it is bad for the company, bad for consumers, bad for innovation. It comes across as a manifesto, and is sure to be long remembered in technology history. 

A few weeks later on 23 May (and perhaps spurred by the “moat” document, or perhaps by serendipity), Meta, which had also committed enormous resources to AI, released the source code to its largest model, inelegantly named OPT-66B. Smaller models had been previously both released and leaked, but this announcement was a big bomb being dropped on the closed-source AI landscape.

There can be no secrecy in this field any more. Those mega-tech companies seeking to gain a competitive edge through non-disclosure will find themselves having to look elsewhere for an edge – like product design or marketing or support. And those seeking to constrain the development because of its very real and difficult-to-define risks, will also have to look on anxiously as the technology spreads everywhere. 

The AI arms race is over. It is not clear who the winners are. But it is not the big tech companies or global regulators. It is now in the hands of everyone, virtuous and evil. 

Is this a good thing? 

I am in two minds. DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg.

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