Microsoft is partnering with OpenAI on artificial general intelligence, which would allow machines to solve more complex problems than they can now. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Microsoft is investing $1 billion in OpenAI, a start-up co-founded by Elon Musk, forging a partnership intent on creating artificial intelligence that rivals the human brain.

Artificial intelligence as it exists involves training machines to solve specific problems or perform particular tasks, like filter spam emails or predict an earthquake. The Microsoft and OpenAI collaboration will zero in on artificial general intelligence: machines capable of learning and operating just as well as, or better than, humans.

AGI has the “potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,” Sam Altman, the co-founder and chief executive of OpenAI, said in a news release. “Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity, and we’re working with Microsoft to build the supercomputing foundation on which we’ll build AGI. We believe it’s crucial that AGI is deployed safely and securely and that its economic benefits are widely distributed. We are excited about how deeply Microsoft shares this vision.”

Even the most optimistic researchers speak of AGI’s arrival in terms of decades rather than years. Many think truly intelligent machines are impossible. But should AGI became a reality, it could be used to tackle humanity’s greatest ills.

“We want AGI to work with people to solve currently intractable multidisciplinary problems, including global challenges such as climate change, affordable and high-quality health care, and personalized education,” OpenAI wrote in a blog post announcing the Microsoft partnership. “We think its impact should be to give everyone economic freedom to pursue what they find most fulfilling, creating new opportunities for all of our lives that are unimaginable today.”

The two companies will work to build out Microsoft’s cloud-computing platform, Azure, to create supercomputing technologies strong enough to support the kind of innovations in artificial intelligence that might one day lead to AGI. Limitations in computing power are a major barrier to AI development: OpenAI spent nearly $8 million on cloud computing in 2017, Wired reported.

As part of their deal, Microsoft will now become OpenAI’s exclusive cloud services provider, and OpenAI will license some of its technologies to Microsoft for commercialization. The companies have worked together since 2016.

Like all technology, advances in artificial intelligence come with formidable questions about application and impact, and the pursuit of superhuman cognition is likely to yield proportionally significant ethical quandaries. Keeping these issues at the fore is key for Microsoft and OpenAI’s partnership, the companies said.

“The technology industry in the last few years has not done a good enough job about thinking ahead of time about the impact that their work is going to have,” Altman said in a conversation with Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella. “So we want to make sure that the systems that we build are safe, understandable and most importantly, that the benefits of it are broadly shared.”

OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit in 2015, with $1 billion in backing from tech heavyweights like Musk, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel. Musk stepped down as chairman in February 2018, to “eliminate a potential future conflict” of interest, the company said in a blog post. Since then, OpenAI has restructured into a for-profit company so it can pursue the kind of financing necessary for such research, and to compete with giants like Google and Amazon.

"The amount of money we needed to be successful in the mission is much more gigantic than I originally thought,” Altman told Wired.

The San Francisco-based research lab has garnered mainstream attention with its projects, like a language modeling program that can take a prompt like a fake headline and use it to generate a convincing news article, complete with quotes and statistics. (You can test a slimmed-down version of the program here.) In April, an OpenAI notched a global first when its system trained to play Dota 2, a complex, multiplayer strategy game, beat the world champion esports team.