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OpenAI shifts from nonprofit to ‘capped-profit’ to attract capital

OpenAI may not be quite so open going forward. The former nonprofit announced today that it is restructuring as a “capped-profit” company that cuts returns from investments past a certain point. But some worry that this move — or rather the way they made it — may result in making the innovative company no different from the other AI startups out there.
From now on, profits from any investment in the OpenAI LP (limited partnership, not limited profit) will be passed on to an overarching nonprofit company, which will disperse them as it sees fit. Profits in excess of a 100x return, that is.
In simplified terms, if you invested $10 million today, the profit cap will come into play only after that $10 million has generated $1 billion in returns. You can see why some people are concerned that this structure is “limited” in name only.
In a blog post, OpenAI explained the rationale behind its decision:
We’ll need to invest billions of dollars in upcoming years into large-scale cloud compute, attracting and retaining talented people, and building AI supercomputers.
We want to increase our ability to raise capital while still serving our mission, and no pre-existing legal structure we know of strikes the right balance. Our solution is to create OpenAI LP as a hybrid of a for-profit and nonprofit—which we are calling a “capped-profit” company.
Essentially, the company is admitting that it was unlikely to raise the money necessary to achieve its goals while operating as a nonprofit — which, as you can imagine, investors see no immediate returns on. (Although it’s possible to make money on spin-offs and other sub-businesses, putting money into a nonprofit isn’t really a lucrative move.)
Less money wouldn’t be as big a problem if OpenAI were not competing with the likes of Google and Amazon for specialists in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and so on. The cost of development is also quite high.
This of course was also true (though perhaps less acute) in 2015 when OpenAI was started. Yet as the founders wrote then:
Our goal is to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return. Since our research is free from financial obligations, we can better focus on a positive human impact.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation!
But having said that, OpenAI isn’t the first nonprofit to stumble on the money issue; the simple fact is that it’s hard to outspend global megacorps in a field where success is at least partly determined by budget. And in a way, perhaps they reasoned, isn’t being profitable sort of being “free from financial obligations?” Think about it.

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