Big Tech Muscles In: The 12 Months That Changed Silicon Valley Forever

Actually, months earlier Meta had released its own chatbot — to very little notice.

BlenderBot was a flop. The A.I.-powered bot, released in August 2022, was built to carry on conversations — and that it did. It said that Donald J. Trump was still president and that President Biden had lost in 2020. Mark Zuckerberg, it told a user, was “creepy.” Then two weeks before ChatGPT was released, Meta introduced Galactica. Designed for scientific research, it could instantly write academic articles and solve math problems. Someone asked it to write a research paper about the history of bears in space. It did. After three days, Galactica was shut down.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s head was elsewhere. He had spent the entire year reorienting the company around the metaverse and was focused on virtual and augmented reality.

But ChatGPT would demand his attention. His top A.I. scientist, Yann LeCun, arrived in the Bay Area from New York about six weeks later for a routine management meeting at Meta, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Dr. LeCun led a double life — as Meta’s chief A.I. scientist and a professor at New York University. The Frenchman had won the Turing Award, computer science’s most prestigious honor, alongside Dr. Hinton, for work on neural networks.

As they waited in line for lunch at a cafe in Meta’s Frank Gehry-designed headquarters, Dr. LeCun delivered a warning to Mr. Zuckerberg. He said Meta should match OpenAI’s technology and also push forward with work on an A.I. assistant that could do stuff on the internet on your behalf. Websites like Facebook and Instagram could become extinct, he warned. A.I. was the future.

Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t say much, but he was listening. There was plenty of A.I. at work across Meta’s apps — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp — but it was under the hood. Mr. Zuckerberg was frustrated. He wanted the world to recognize the power of Meta’s A.I. Dr. LeCun had always argued that going open-source, making the code public, would attract countless researchers and developers to Meta’s technology, and help improve it at a far faster pace. That would allow Meta to catch up — and put Mr. Zuckerberg back in league with his fellow moguls. But it would also allow anyone to manipulate the technology to do bad things.