Reid Hoffman Is on a Mission: To Show AI Can Improve Humanity
Reid Hoffman, billionaire entrepreneur and venture capital investor, is worried about artificial intelligence — but not for the doomsday reasons making headlines. Instead, he worries the doomsday headlines are too negative.
So in recent months, Mr. Hoffman has engaged in an aggressive thought-leadership regimen to extol the virtues of AI. He has done so in blog posts, television interviews and fireside chats. He has spoken to government officials around the world. He hosts three podcasts and a YouTube channel. And in March, he published a book, “Impromptu,” co-written with the AI tool GPT-4.
It’s all part of the land grab for public opinion around AI in preparation for when the initial burst of fear and hype over the technology settles into a coherent debate. Sides will be chosen, regulation will be proposed, and tech tools will become politicized. For now, industry leaders like Mr. Hoffman is trying to nudge the terms of the discussion in their favor, even as public concerns only seem to be growing.
“I’m beating the positive drum very loudly, and I’m doing so deliberately,” he said.
Few are as intertwined in so many facets of the fast-moving industry as Mr. Hoffman. The 55-year-old sits on the boards of 11 tech companies including Microsoft, which has gone all in on AI, and eight nonprofits. His venture capital firm, Greylock Partners, has backed at least 37 AI companies. He was among the first investors in OpenAI, the most prominent AI start-up, and recently left its board. He also helped found Inflection AI, an AI chatbot start-up that has raised at least $225 million.
And then there is his more abstract goal of “elevating humanity,” or helping people improve their circumstances, a concept he relays in an affable, matter-of-fact manner. Mr. Hoffman believes AI is critical to that mission and points as examples to its potential to transform areas like health care — “giving everyone a medical assistant”; and education—”giving everyone a tutor.”
“That’s part of the responsibility that we should be thinking about here,” he said.
Mr. Hoffman is among a small group of interconnected tech executives leading the AI charge, many of whom also led the last internet boom. He is a member of the “PayPal Mafia” of former PayPal executives that includes Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. The latter two backed DeepMind, an AI start-up that Google bought, and all three were early backers of OpenAI. Jessica Livingston, a founder of the start-up incubator Y Combinator, also put money into OpenAI; Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief executive, was previously president of Y Combinator.
Mr. Musk has now started his own AI company, X.AI. Mr. Thiel’s venture firm, Founders Fund, has backed more than 70 AI companies, including OpenAI, according to PitchBook, which tracks start-up investments. Mr. Altman has invested in several AI start-ups on top of running OpenAI, which itself has invested in seven AI start-ups through its start-up fund. And Y Combinator’s latest batch of start-ups included 78 focused on AI, nearly double its last group.
The tech leaders differ on AI’s risks and opportunities and have been loudly promoting their takes in the marketplace of ideas.
Mr. Musk recently warned of AI’s dangers on Bill Maher’s show and in a sit-down with Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. Mr. Hoffman has explained the technology’s potential to Vice President Kamala Harris, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Last week, Mr. Altman said in a congressional hearing that “the benefits of the tools we have deployed so far vastly outweigh the risks.”
In Mr. In Hoffman’s view, warnings about AI’s existential risk to humanity overstate what the technology can do. And he believes that other potential issues caused by AI — job loss, destruction of democracy, disruption of the economy — have an obvious fix: more technology.
“The solutions live in the future, not by enshrining the past,” he said.
That’s a tough pitch to a public that has seen tech’s harmful effects over the last decade, including social media misinformation and autonomous vehicle crashes. And this time, the risks are even larger, said Oded Netzer, a professor at Columbia Business School.
“It’s not just the risks, it’s how fast they are moving,” 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’s pro-AI campaign, he said, is meant to foster trust where it’s broken. “It’s not to say that there won’t be some harms in some areas,” he said. “The question is could we learn and iterate to a much better state?”
Mr. Hoffman has been thinking about that question since he studied symbolic systems at Stanford University in the late 1980s. There, he imagined how AI would facilitate “our Promethean moment,” he said in a YouTube video from March. “We can make these new things and we can travel with them.”
After working at PayPal and co-founding LinkedIn, the professional social network, in 2002, Mr. Hoffman began investing in start-ups including Nauto, Nuro and Aurora Innovation, all focused on applying AI tech to transportation. He also joined an AI ethics committee at DeepMind.
Mustafa Suleyman, DeepMind’s co-founder, said Mr. Hoffman differed from other venture capitalists in that his primary motivation was doing good in the world.
“How can we be in the service of humanity? He asked that question all the time,” Mr. Suleiman said.
When Mr. Suleyman began working on his latest start-up, Inflection AI, he found Mr. Hoffman’s strategic advice to be so useful that he asked him to help found the company. Greylock invested in the start-up last year.
Mr. Hoffman was also there in OpenAI’s early days. At an Italian restaurant in San Jose, Calif., in 2015, he met with Mr. Musk and Mr. Altman to discuss the beginnings of the company, which has a mission of ensuring that the most powerful AI “benefits all of humanity.”
Several years later, when OpenAI was thinking about corporate partnerships, Mr. Hoffman said he encouraged Mr. Altman to meet with Microsoft, which had bought LinkedIn in 2016.
Mr. Altman said he was initially anxious that Microsoft, a behemoth with a duty to prioritize its shareholders, might not take seriously OpenAI’s mission and unusual structure of capping its profits. In any large, complicated deal, Mr. Altman said, “everyone’s anxious about, ‘How is this really going to work?'”
Mr. Hoffman helped smooth things out. He talked to Mr. Altman through various concerns while wearing metaphorical “hats” as an OpenAI board member, a Microsoft board member, and as himself.
“You have to be really clear about which hat you’re talking with,” Mr. Hoffman said.
Mr. Altman said Mr. Hoffman helped OpenAI “model Microsoft and think about what they’d care about, what they’d be good at, what they’d be bad at, and similar to them for us.”
In 2019, OpenAI and Microsoft struck a $1 billion agreement, which has propelled them into a leading position today. (To avoid a conflict of interest, Mr. Hoffman was not part of the negotiations and abstained from voting to approve the deal on each board.)
A little over a year ago, as Mr. Hoffman saw the progress OpenAI was making on its GPT-3 language model, he had another Promethean moment. He immediately flipped an AI switch on nearly everything he worked on, including Greylock’s new investments and existing start-ups as well as his podcast, book and discussions with government officials.
“It was basically like, ‘If it’s not this, it better be something that’s absolutely critical for society,'” he said.
OpenAI released a chatbot, ChatGPT, in November, which became a sensation. One Greylock investment, Tome, integrated OpenAI’s GPT-3 technology into its “storytelling” software immediately after. The number of Tome users skyrocketed to six million from a few thousand teams, said Keith Peiris, Tome’s chief executive.
Mr. Hoffman said his approach was shaped, in part, by his access to “extremely high-quality information flows,” some through his business relationships with Microsoft, OpenAI and others. Some is through various philanthropies, like Stanford’s AI center.
And some is through his political connections. He has poured millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns and political action committees. Barack Obama is a friend, he said.
For now, he’s using his influence to paint a picture of AI-driven progress. Tech insiders cheer on his cheerleading. The rest of the world is more skeptical. A recent survey conducted by Reuters and Ipsos showed that 61 percent of Americans believe AI could be a threat to humanity.
Mr. Hoffman brushes off those fears as overblown. He expects that the more tangible problems facing AI, including its tendency to spit out incorrect information, will be worked out as tech companies upgrade their systems and deploy them to help.
Looking ahead, he said, there will be more investments, more podcasts, more conversations with government officials and more work on Inflection AI. The way to navigate AI’s risks, he stressed, is by steering the world toward the positives.
“I’m a tech optimist, not a tech utopian,” he said.
Cade Metz contributed reporting.