Catching Top Talent By Setting Them Loose

Catching Top Talent By Setting Them Loose

In an effort to retain the best and brightest of its talent and capitalize on their creativity, Google is launching an internal startup incubator. According to The Information, the incubator, dubbed “Area 120,” will enable Googlers who present compelling business plans to work full-time on innovative new ventures with the goal of turning them into independent companies with Google as a major investor. The move appears to be an expansion of Google’s longstanding policy of letting employees devote 20 percent of their time to side projects, with the company’s approval: Signature products like Gmail, Google News, and AdSense began as such projects.

If the labor market is increasingly talent-driven these days, nowhere is that more true than in Silicon Valley, where a shortage of skilled tech workers means that top talent commands top dollar. The retention concerns motivating Area 120 were thrown into relief earlier this month when Regina Dugan, the former DARPA chief who led Google’s Advanced Technology And Products team since 2012, left the company to lead Facebook’s competing skunkworks division, with the equally sci-fi name “Building 8.”

If Google is hoping to retain creative geniuses by giving them more independence to develop and market their own ideas, Elon Musk’s billion-dollar nonprofit OpenAI is luring them in with the chance to give them away for free. In a new, in-depth feature about the project, Wired writer Cade Metz notes that OpenAI has managed to grab some of the best minds in the AI field despite aggressive efforts by competitors to poach them—and not by outbidding, either:

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Getting Out in Front of the Mad Scientists

Getting Out in Front of the Mad Scientists

Cade Metz at Wired reports that investors Elon Musk and Sam Altman are setting up a billion-dollar nonprofit to “maximize the power of AI—and then share it with anyone who wants it”:

At least, this is the message that Musk, the founder of electric car company Tesla Motors, and Altman, the president of startup incubator Y Combinator, delivered in announcing their new endeavor, an unprecedented outfit called OpenAI. In an interview with Steven Levy of Backchannel, timed to the company’s launch, Altman said they expect this decades-long project to surpass human intelligence. But they believe that any risks will be mitigated because the technology will be “usable by everyone instead of usable by, say, just Google.”

Naturally, Levy asked whether their plan to freely share this technology would actually empower bad actors, if they would end up giving state-of-the-art AI to the Dr. Evils of the world. But they played down this risk. They feel that the power of the many will outweigh the power of the few. “Just like humans protect against Dr. Evil by the fact that most humans are good, and the collective force of humanity can contain the bad elements,” said Altman, “we think its far more likely that many, many AIs, will work to stop the occasional bad actors.”

OpenAI’s chances of saving the world from mad data scientists are hard to predict, but it could certainly shake up the high-tech sector:

If OpenAI stays true to its mission of giving everyone access to new ideas, it will at least serve as a check on powerful companies like Google and Facebook. With Musk, Altman, and others pumping more than a billion dollars into the venture, OpenAI is showing how the very notion of competition has changed in recent years. Increasingly, companies and entrepreneurs and investors are hoping to compete with rivals by giving away their technologies. Talk about counterintuitive.