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Mark Zuckerberg’s Real Cage Fight
November 1, 2023

Mark Zuckerberg’s Real Cage Fight

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s with Sam Altman and OpenAI for chatbot dominance., Mark Zuckerberg and Meta are going after Sam Altman and OpenAI. Cage fight!

This article is from Big Technology, a newsletter by Alex Kantrowitz.

Sam Altman sat comfortably between Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai at a White House gathering of top A.I. CEOs in May—with one noticeable gap in the guest list. With Alphabet, Microsoft, and OpenAI in attendance, it was impossible to miss Mark Zuckerberg’s absence. And that appeared to be no accident. The meeting, one administration official said, ‘was focused on companies currently leading in the space.’ Political symbolism is overrated, but the words must’ve stung.

Ever since the gathering, Zuckerberg and Meta have rapidly shipped products that compete directly with Altman’s OpenAI, opening up one of the most intense—and overlooked—battles in tech today. Meta has countered OpenAI’s GPT-4 with Llama 2, its own large language model that’s open-source and more customizable. It’s responded to ChatGPT with more than two dozen specialized chatbots in its messaging apps. It’s advocated for a more permissive A.I. research environment, opposing OpenAI’s call for controls. And today—just five months after that White House summit—nobody would leave Meta outside the room. ‘They probably have forced the issue,’ one D.C. insider who works on tech issues told me.

Zuckerberg’s offensive has baffled some looking for direct business results, and it’s easy to view it as an ego thing, but limiting Altman’s ascent is a clear business imperative for Meta. OpenAI is building popular consumer products, recruiting top A.I. talent, and pushing to restrict A.I. research. This all threatens Meta’s ability to grow and innovate, so the company’s going back to a familiar place: destroy mode.

Altman might not have known it then, but he began competing with Zuckerberg the moment he introduced ChatGPT. Messaging is Meta’s strongest category. The company owns two different billion-plus-user chat apps (WhatsApp and Messenger) and another counting Instagram. It tried to build chatbots (far too) early because it saw them as the next computing platform in 2016. Meta even built a ChatGPT precursor, called M, that responded to questions, booked flights, and drew pictures. M’s ‘technology’ was almost entirely human, though, and Meta eventually shut it down. But the vision persisted.

When ChatGPT debuted in November 2022, Altman not only released one of Zuckerberg’s dream products, he built the fastest-growing consumer product ever (at the time). The technology caught up to the vision, but someone else was capitalizing. The risks to Meta were manifold. People spending time speaking to ChatGPT might ignore their friends on WhatsApp. OpenAI seemed interested in building that next computing platform—where everything from flight reservations to food ordering is available via chat—via its ChatGPT Plugins product. And Altman was good at making money from chat, something Meta’s long puzzled over.

Instead of building one generalized bot to limit ChatGPT’s growth—a clone strategy like Stories (a Snap ripoff) and Reels (a TikTok response)—Meta built more than two dozen specialized ones. The idea was that a multiuse bot was a nice demo, but the technology would eventually move to more specific, narrow use cases. A.I. bots were already specializing, including Harvey for law and for entertainment. And ChatGPT lost users steadily over the summer. So in September, Meta released 28 different A.I.s in its messaging apps, including Coco (for dancing), Max (for cooking), and Victor (for training). It will take some time to evaluate the bots’ success, but Meta won’t be shy about pushing them to its 3.96 billion monthly active users. It has a track record in this area.

Meta is also going after the core of OpenAI’s business, taking on its GPT-4 model, which ChatGPT turned into a sensation. Companies are swiftly building on top of GPT-4, helping OpenAI reach $1.3 billion in annualized revenue. Just this week, Microsoft announced its OpenAI offering grew from 11,000 to 18,000 customers in one quarter. But Meta’s counterpunch might limit growth there as well.

In July, Meta released Llama2, an open-source large language model that gives developers more flexibility to customize as opposed to simply building on an API. Llama2 is already at the forefront of the open-source A.I. movement, the hottest area of A.I. research today, one that’s countering OpenAI’s proprietary approach. And in releasing it, Meta’s helping drive the breakthroughs OpenAI pioneered toward commoditization.

So now, instead of owning the space outright, OpenAI is in the hits business. ‘Llama is not going to kill OpenAI,’ Oren Etzioni, technical director at the AI2 Incubator, told me. ‘It means that OpenAI has to continue to innovate, and differentiate, and build multimodal. It means that we’re in a more competitive space.’

For Meta, the benefit of building a cutting-edge open-source model—and setting OpenAI back a notch—is improving its ability to recruit and retain A.I. talent. A.I. researchers churn frequently at all levels, a former Meta A.I. employee told me, so a vigorous counterpunch to OpenAI entices them to spend time at Meta and do groundbreaking work. Given how deeply Meta’s infused A.I. into products, both new and old, it needs that talent to compete.

Finally, Meta is challenging OpenAI’s push to regulate A.I., a battle just starting to heat up. In May, a few days after the White House meeting, Altman sat before the U.S. Congress and asked for significant controls on A.I. development, including an agency that would issue licenses for large A.I. models, the type OpenAI and Meta develop. In September, at a meeting with lawmakers that he was invited to, Zuckerberg pushed back, arguing for open source. As the White House gears up to release an executive order on A.I. next week, the stakes are rising.

Similar to TikTok and Snapchat Stories, OpenAI now finds itself squarely in Zuckerberg’s path, and the playbook from here is straightforward. Seeing the threat, Meta will work to cut off its competitor’s growth, and then exploit its size advantage to compete. OpenAI might be able to fend off the threat. But now that an upstart competitor has a seat at the table, Meta’s not about to back down.


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