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The Biggest Problem with AI: Monetizing Its Use

A few years ago, most people didn’t anticipate artificial intelligence (AI) would be readily available to the masses. But this past year, AI platforms like ChatGPT brought this concept to reality. From image creations, to songs, to a variety of written compositions, AI is rapidly changing society, and companies like OpenAI are leading the way. Invested in cutting-edge research to explore the potential of machine learning and AI, they are changing nearly every industry. But in the process, concerns about the ethical use of AI exist in the background, and there are related worries about how monetizing AI should be pursued amidst these concerns. Such debates are common, and how they will play out in the future remains to be determined.

a robot monetizing AI
Monetizing AI is a tough nut to crack–especially since it’s thus far been free.

(Check out this Bold story for a comparative breakdown of the various AI chatbots.)

Interestingly, differences in opinion in monetizing AI are key issues among some AI companies today. Specifically, OpenAI is struggling to balance their non-profit mission with the companies’ for-profit arm designed to fuel its research. What appears to have started as a purely altruistic pursuit of AI development and public use is changing. Pressures are mounting within the company and from its investors to take a different approach. On the one hand, such a strategy would provide funds needed for R&D. But at the same time, profits could undermine the ethical use of AI and its equitable access to the public. When all is said and done, OpenAI might simply be the next Google rather than the AI savior it intended to be.

OpenAI’s Mission and History

Dreams of artificial intelligence go back many decades. But the actual pursuit of AI involves a much more recent history. Some companies began research between 10 and 15 years ago, and Open AI was among them. Unlike other such startups, however, Open AI had a star-studded list of investors including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Sam Altman. In fact, Open AI started with $1 billion in early funding to pursue its AI research and development. The company began in 2015, launching its first AI products to the public about a year ago. These products were generally accessible to all aligning with the company’s desire for the ethical use of AI. The focus was not primarily on monetizing AI or profiting but instead ensuring responsible use of this technology.

Early in the conceptualization of OpenAI, there was a strong focus on the safe and ethical use of AI. The company culture adopted a mission to serve the public good and all of humanity. Therefore, profitability was placed on the back burner since ample investments were being received to fuel research. But this began to change in 2019 when Open AI created a for-profit arm within its non-profit structure. Profits were needed to keep pace with the research needed to advance AI’s development. This may not seem unusual since many nonprofits leverage for-profit activities to support their mission and research. But for Open AI, the move seemed a bit more concerning for many employees.

an AI generating stuff from within someone's hands
All these new AIs generating content (and learning and improving) is great, but nothing is sustainable when it’s all free.

The Current Riff at Open AI

With the announcement of the for-profit arm, conflicts began to arise among stakeholders. Employees committed to the company’s culture focused on safety and public good weren’t big fans of the for-profit approach. Their view was that any revenues enjoyed should fuel further research and innovation. This best aligned with the ethical use of AI and Open AI’s mission. But those in favor of the for-profit addition believed there was a need to capitalize on new AI products to drive ongoing research. They also saw this as a means to garner ongoing investments. Naturally, this approach benefited investors and was favored by some senior management. They believed monetizing AI was essential to drive ongoing advances. Not everyone agreed, however.

Of course, not all employees are concerned about preserving the existing culture that supports the ethical use of AI. While they certainly support this, many also have company shares worth considerable value. Open AI’s shares currently have been estimated to be worth $86 billion. Moving toward a for-profit status would allow these shares to be purchased by the company or perhaps other investors. At the same time, the for-profit subsidiary of Open AI already provided investors with a 100-fold limit on any investment they make. That means a $1 million investment could potentially yield $100 million. If Open AI begins monetizing AI products, this could attract ongoing investors to drive research. But as many point out, this will also undermine Open AI’s more altruistic commitments along the way.

The Challenges of Monetizing AI

a dude demanding the ethical use of AI
The ethical use of AI can go hand in hand with making money from it… right?

When it comes to the ethical use of AI, a variety of concerns exist. AI platforms already have the potential to be used to spread disinformation. They may also be used create programming codes used to hack databases, posing cybersecurity worries. And because AI systems are trained on Internet-based data, legal issues over copyright protections and privacy are being actively debated. Given this, many believe a priority should be given to the safe and ethical use of AI over monetizing AI. Open AI has been one of these advocates throughout its history. But both investor and internal pressures now exist that threaten its ability to stay true to its course. Research monies are needed, and there is always the chance another AI company will neglect safety and ethical use aspects. For Open AI, risks exist on both sides of the non-profit and for-profit choice.

(Get the lowdown on the top deepfake AI apps with this Bold story.)

These issues form the basis for the current disagreements occurring within Open AI. These disagreements about the direction of Open AI are more than simply conversational. The company’s board of directors has recently gone through three CEOs in a mere 72 hours. Sam Altman, the company’s CEO for some time, was fired as a result of his for-profit bias. Based on the company’s struggles, monetizing AI poses problems. Is it possible that AI could be monetized without sacrificing open access, safety, and public good? This is the multi-billion-dollar question that Open AI is trying to answer. And it’s one that all AI companies will face as their AI products advance.


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