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Big Tech in charge as ChatGPT turns one

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ChatGPT became the fastest adopted app in history (since taken over by Meta’s Threads) as users marveled at the generation of poems, recipes - or whatever the internet could muster - in just seconds
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A year after the history-making release of ChatGPT, the AI revolution is here, but the recent boardroom crisis at OpenAI, the super app’s company, has erased any doubt that Big Tech is in charge.

In some ways, the discreet reveal of ChatGPT on November 30 last year was the revenge of the geeks, the unsung researchers and engineers who have been quietly building generative AI behind the scenes.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, a well-known figure in technology circles, but still little known beyond that, with the release of ChatGPT made sure that this unheralded AI tech would get the attention it deserves.

ChatGPT became the fastest adopted app in history (since taken over by Meta’s Threads) as users marveled at the generation of poems, recipes — or whatever the internet could muster — in just seconds.

Altman’s gamble catapulted the 38-year-old Stanford dropout to household name stardom — making him a sort of philosopher king of AI with world leaders and tycoons hanging on to his every word.

With AI, “you’re in the business of making and selling things you can’t put your hands on,” said University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara and author of “The Code”, a history of Silicon Valley.

“Having a figurehead of someone who can explain it, especially when it’s advanced technology, is really important,” she added.

– ‘Religious fundamentalism’ –

Altman’s devotion to AI can often seem quasi-religious.

OpenAI’s acolytes are confident that the world will be a better place if they are given free rein (and cash) to build artificial general intelligence – AI at the same level or beyond the capabilities of the human mind.

But the high costs of that sacred mission forced an alliance with Microsoft, the world’s second biggest company, which operates with profit, not altruism, as its goal.

Microsoft pledged $13 billion for OpenAI earlier this year, and Altman redirected the company on a money-making trajectory to help justify the investment.

This eventually sparked this month’s boardroom rebellion by those — including OpenAI’s chief scientist — who believe that the money-makers should be kept at bay.

There is “religious fundamentalism at play here,” venture capitalist Dave Morin said in a podcast for The Information after Altman was unceremoniously fired from OpenAI only to be reinstated five days later.

The AI research community have “almost deified this technology,” he added.

When the battle erupted, Microsoft defended Altman and OpenAI’s young staff all backed him too, aware that the future of the company came with the revenues that kept the computers humming, not lofty ideas on how AI should or should not be used.

– AI agent –

This tension between AI saving the world or ruining it has marked the year since the ChatGPT launch.

Elon Musk, for example, signed a letter calling for a pause in AI innovations to only months later start his own company, xAI, joining an increasingly crowded market.

Google, Meta and Amazon have all weaved promises of AI into their company announcements and invested in AI startups.

Killer robot or magic wand, corporations in all sectors are signing up to try AI, usually through their cloud providers, Microsoft, Google or Amazon or from OpenAI.

“The time from learning that generative AI was a thing to actually deciding to spend time building applications around it has been the shortest I’ve ever seen for any type of technology,” said Rowan Curran, an analyst at Forrester Research.

But fears remain rife that bots might “hallucinate,” churning out false, nonsensical or offensive material so company efforts are modest for now.

One attempt is the AI agent, a sort of amped up chatbot that can help office workers trowel through emails, write memos, or have more fun while instant messaging.

Software programmers vaunt the powers at developer collaboration platform Github.

“It’s about being able to get the benefits of AI broadly disseminated to everyone,”  Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said this month.

The rush to AI ramps up fear of dangers such as human extinction, and societal concerns like bias, job displacement and disinformation on an industrial scale.

Users creating pornographic deepfakes of a classmate or biased AI weeding out loan applicants are where regulators should be focused, industry observers argue.

– ‘Capitalists won’ –

Whatever the next chapter for AI, it won’t get written without tech giants like Microsoft, which could soon land a seat on the company’s board in the fallout of the boardroom drama.

“We saw yet another Silicon Valley battle between the idealists and the capitalists, and the capitalists won,” said historian O’Mara.

Nor will the next chapter of AI get written without Nvidia, the manufacturer of AI’s secret ingredient, the graphics processing unit, or GPU, a powerful chip that is indispensible to train AI.

Tech giant, startup or researcher — everyone must get their hands on those Taiwan-made chips, which are both expensive and hard to come by.

Big tech companies — Microsoft, Amazon, Google — are at the front of the line.

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WTO ministers struggle to forge fish, farm, digital deals

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The WTO meeting in the capital of the United Arab Emirates had opened on Monday with major disagreements between the body's 164 member states on key issues
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World trade ministers were locked in disagreement on fisheries subsidies, agriculture and digital customs duties as a major WTO conference entered its last scheduled day on Thursday.

With no signs of a breakthrough at the World Trade Organization’s 13th ministerial conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi, officials pushed back to midnight its formal closing session, initially scheduled for 8:00 pm (1600 GMT).

The meeting in the capital of the United Arab Emirates opened on Monday with disagreements between the body’s 164 member states on key issues that dominated the agenda of the talks.

They include fisheries subsidies, agriculture and a moratorium on customs duties for digital transactions.

“Everybody is working with a very positive outlook… to try to see what’s the maximum we can get done,” Indian trade minister Piyush Goyal told journalists.

“I am very confident… we will come out with significant outcomes, particularly when it refers to areas of very deep concern to large numbers” of developing countries, he added.

– Fisheries deal ‘difficult’ –

Delegates sought trade-offs as part of a potential package deal that could allow for greater agreement, as was the case during the 2022 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

A new deal on fisheries was initially viewed as the most likely outcome of the MC13 talks.

But Goyal on Thursday said: “It is very difficult to get a resolution.”

After a 2022 deal which banned subsidies contributing to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second package focusing on subsidies which result in overcapacity and overfishing.

A draft text that was meant to be circulated on Wednesday is still facing delays, said a source close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The overall negotiations “are a bit like a rollercoaster,” the source said.

– E-commerce regulations –

Another sticking point is over the extension of an e-commerce moratorium, which EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis on Thursday called “vital” to economic growth.

Since 1998, WTO members have agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions.

The moratorium has been extended at most ministerial meetings since then, but objections by India and South Africa are now throwing it into jeopardy.

When asked if India would compromise on an extension, Goyal said: “Let’s see what the others are budging on.”

He warned, however, that an extension can’t be “taken for granted.”

On food security, Goyal said he was “confident” progress could be made on permanent rules governing public stockholding of food reserves — a key demand of India.

A “solution can be achieved,” Goyal said.

Big questions remain over how the outcome will address the issue of dispute settlement reform — a main point of contention between the United States and India.

Washington, under former President Donald Trump, brought the dispute settlement system to a grinding halt in 2019 by blocking the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appeals court, its highest dispute settlement authority.

During the last WTO ministerial in 2022, member states reached a commitment to having a fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system in place by 2024.

“What we’re going to see, I think, is a quite succinct (MC13) declaration which is… not going to sort out the substance,” said a Western diplomatic source who asked not to be named.

“It will recognize the progress we have made and that there is more work to be done, and that we have committed ourselves to get… the system up and running in the course of this year.”

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Universal-TikTok feud ramps up as more songs come down

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Taylor Swift is among the Universal Music Group artists whose music has been removed from TikTok
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Universal Music Group has lambasted TikTok’s approach to AI as the feud between the two companies over song royalties escalates and popular music is expunged from the social media platform.

Earlier this month music including by Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and The Beatles left TikTok, after a breakdown in negotiations with Universal over renewing their licensing agreement, which expired January 31.

Then this week TikTok began stripping music from all artists connected to Universal’s vast publishing catalog, per the multinational music company’s requirement, with all songs written by Universal Music Publishing Group’s songwriters subject to removal.

That affects any artist who may have a publishing deal with the label — examples include Harry Styles and SZA — even if they aren’t signed under the UMG recording umbrella.

“We are in the process of carrying out Universal Music Group’s requirement to remove all songs that have been written (or co-written) by a songwriter signed to Universal Music Publishing Group, based on information they have provided,” said TikTok in a statement.

Universal fired back late Thursday in an open statement to its songwriters, saying TikTok has “not agreed to recognize the fair value of your songs.”

Along with royalties, Universal said TikTok is “refusing to respond to our concerns about AI depriving songwriters from fair compensation, or provide assurances that they will not train their AI models on your songs.”

“Every indication is that they simply do not value your music.”

Universal’s publishing arm is the second largest of its kind worldwide, meaning the feud’s impact is far-reaching.

A piece of music has two copyrights: one for the recording itself, governed by a label, and another for lyrics and composition, managed by a publisher.

That means when it comes to the Universal-TikTok battle, a record from another company like Sony or Warner could come down if a Universal writer worked on the song.

The fallout from the stalemate has triggered concern among songwriters, producers and others in the industry who rely on TikTok as a promotional tool, especially for emerging artists who increasingly count on it for exposure in the industry.

“We understand the disruption is difficult for some of you and your careers, and we are sensitive to how this may affect you around the world,” Universal continued in its statement. “We recognize that this might be uncomfortable at the moment.”

“But it is critical for the sustained future value, safety and health of the entire music ecosystem, including all music fans.”

Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms globally, with more than one billion users.

TikTok previously had accused Universal of putting “greed” above artists’ interests, while Universal has said TikTok is “trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”

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Riding high on AI, Nvidia is no bubble, says Wall Street

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Jensen Huang, cofounder and CEO of Nvidia, waves as he arrives for a media roundtable in Kuala Lumpur on December 8, 2023
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The emergence of AI bots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard has fueled a massive rise in share prices of chip-making juggernaut Nvidia, with its skyrocketing stock now making it the world’s fourth biggest company by market capitalization.

And for Wall Street, it’s no bubble.

Between the launch of ChatGPT on November 30, 2022, for example, and the market close on February 23, Nvidia’s share price increased fivefold, lifted to investor heaven by an insatiable hunger for so-called generative artificial intelligence.

That day Nvidia also crossed the symbolic valuation of $2 trillion, a threshold only reached by Microsoft, Apple and oil giant Saudi Aramco.

The journey has been nothing but mind boggling for a company that doesn’t even rank among the world’s top 150 firms in terms of sales, and barely in the top 1,000 in terms of employees.

On paper, this hot streak is reminiscent of the dot-com bubble, which saw the share price of fiber networking giant Cisco rise eightfold in 18 months, to the point of becoming, for a few minutes, the world’s most valuable company in terms of market capitalization in March 2000, before the tech bubble burst.

“In AI, there might be some names out there that might be getting a bit ahead of their skis from a valuation perspective, and those stories are going to work themselves out over time,” CFRA analyst Angelo Zino told AFP.

“But on the Nvidia side of things, it’s more fundamentally driven,” he said, without the “type of hype you had previously.”

Unlike the frothy days before the bubble popped in 2000, Nvidia’s actual annual net income (up an eye-popping 581 percent year-on-year) is on par with the stock price, said Larry Tentarelli of Blue Chip Daily Trend Report, a research firm.

For analysts at Wedbush Securities, the relevant parallel is not with 2000 and the end of the dot-com bubble, but rather with 1995, when the dot-com boom began.

– ‘Years ahead’ –

Despite appearances, Nvidia’s success is not out of the blue, but rather years in the making.

At the root of this 30-year-old company’s success are graphics processors or graphics cards, known as GPUs (graphics processing units) — chips with far greater computing capacity than conventional microprocessors (CPUs).

Initially developed to improve the graphics quality of video games, the company run by Jensen Huang figured out the technology was perfectly suited for developing the large language models (LLMs) that underpin generative AI interfaces such as ChatGPT.

Despite initial skepticism from Wall Street, Nvidia went down that road, years before programs like ChatGPT exploded onto the scene.

Now Nvidia’s rivals have set off in pursuit, and several of them, notably AMD and Intel, are already marketing their own AI-oriented GPUs, while Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have also developed chips with AI in mind.

But Nvidia “is years ahead” of its competitors, explained Tentarelli.

“The only real risk for Nvidia is if for some reason they run into some unexpected delay… if they can’t produce enough of these GPUs,” he said.

Unlike its rivals Intel, Micron and Texas Instruments, Nvidia, like AMD, does not manufacture its own semiconductors, but uses subcontractors, mainly the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

Given the geopolitical concerns with Taiwan and China, this could be a potential weak spot, but Tentarelli attributes only a very low probability to a crisis.

– Beat Apple? –

For the time being, Zino argues, Nvidia’s business model, with no production site, is more of a strength than a weakness, as it enables it to generate higher margins and adjust its volumes more easily to demand.

When they scan the horizon, investors see no sign of a slowdown in demand for AI equipment.

For Wedbush securities, “the AI Revolution starts with Nvidia and in our view the AI party… is just getting started.”

Analysts are expecting, on average, earnings to almost double again this year compared with 2023.

“Nvidia could definitely pass Apple in 20 or 24 months and maybe sooner if it stays at the growth rate that the industry is expecting,” Tantarelli said.

As for Microsoft, the other member of the $2 trillion market cap club?

That’s a taller order, as Microsoft “is also doing a very good job” in AI, Tantarelli said.

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