John Carmack, the game developer who co-founded id Software and served as Oculus’s CTO, is working on a new venture — and has already attracted capital from some big names.
Carmack said Friday his new artificial general intelligence startup, called Keen Technologies (perhaps a reference to id’s “Commander Keen“), has raised $20 million in a financing round from former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman and Cue founder Daniel Gross. Stripe co-founder and CEO Patrick Collison, Shopify co-founder and CEO Tobi Lütke, and storied venture fund Sequoia are among those investing in the round, he said.
“This is explicitly a focusing effort for me. I could write a $20M check myself, but knowing that other people’s money is on the line engenders a greater sense of discipline and determination. I had talked about that as a possibility for a while, and I am glad Nat pushed me on it,” he said in a tweet.
AGI, short for “artificial general intelligence,” is a category of AI systems that can theoretically perform any task that a human can. That’s as opposed to AI systems today, which are designed for narrow, specific applications like generating art, driving cars, and playing video games. Some optimists believe AGI could be achieved within the next century, thanks to emerging algorithmic techniques and increasingly powerful computer hardware. Others, including the chief scientist at Carmack’s current employer, Yann LeCun, have cast doubt on the notion that AGI will ever be a reality.
For his part, Carmack seems firmly in the optimist camp. Speaking to MIT research scientist Lex Fridman on a recent podcast, he said that he believes AI will someday reach the point where it behaves akin to a human being or living creature, capable of becoming a “universal remote worker.”
“I do not believe in fast takeoffs … [but] I think that we will go from a point where we start seeing [AI-powered] things that credibly look like animals,” Carmack said. “I think animal intelligence is closer to human intelligence than a lot of people like to think and … There’s just that smooth spectrum of how the brain developed and cortexes and scaling of different things going on there.”
Carmack goes on to note that his interest in AGI was in part spurred by Sam Altman, who he says tried to recruit him to join OpenAI. (Altman is one of the original co-founders of OpenAI, the high-profile AI research lab based in San Francisco.) Altman, who’s previously said he expects AI to one day surpass human intelligence, has been vocal about his concerns about AGI — specifically how it might damage society if built or used incorrectly.
Carmack will still continue to consult with Meta on VR matters, but his work with the social juggernaut, he said, will consume only 20% of his time. Carmack moved to a “consulting CTO” position at Oculus in November 2019 to devote more time to researching AI.
Carmack isn’t the only storied technologist to found an ambitious AI startup recently. For roughly a year, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and founding DeepMind member Mustafa Suleyman have been building Inflection AI, a startup that seeks to translate human interactions into a language computers can understand. Former VP of research at OpenAI Dario Amodei is among the co-founders of Anthropic, which for most of 2021 and into this year has studied the behaviors of AI text-generating systems like OpenAI’s GPT-3.