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Updated Jun 30, 2023, 12:59pm EDT
techpolitics

The 26-year-old CEO who became Washington’s AI whisperer

Semafor/Al Lucca
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The Scene

While OpenAI’s Sam Altman has been dominating the spotlight, another artificial intelligence CEO is increasingly influencing how the industry is perceived by Washington regulators.

Alexandr Wang, the 26-year-old chief executive of the billion-dollar company Scale AI, which manages an army of human AI trainers, was a familiar D.C. face long before the craze over ChatGPT began, securing lucrative government contracts and winning over members of Congress.

Wang, who dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to found Scale in 2016, has taken particular interest in speaking to lawmakers about his hawkish views on China, which he says is the greatest geopolitical competitor to the United States.

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“China has stated that it will dominate AI in both the public and private sectors by 2030 and is throwing the resources behind the goal to make that happen,” Wang warned at Scale’s inaugural tech summit in the capital earlier this month.

What really makes him stand out in the California-centric tech industry, however, are his deep connections in Washington. “Alex and I are actually friends, not like fake D.C. friends, like real friends — we hang out,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said during the summit. “We’ve known each other for three years now.”

In recent months, the CEO has twice briefed the new Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party that Gallagher chairs. “I found him to be very insightful, and at the same time personable, and just energetic about the issues of AI,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi D-Ill., the senior Democrat on the committee who met Wang during a recent trip to California.

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Other lawmakers had similarly complimentary things to say about Wang, whose company spent over $1 million on federal lobbying last year, according to public disclosures. “He strikes me as a man on a mission — fiercely patriotic and fiercely determined to ensure the U.S. achieves AI dominance,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., told Semafor.

A spokesperson for Scale declined to make Wang available for an interview. Vijay Karunamurthy, the company’s field chief technology officer, told Semafor that Scale has been engaging with the U.S. government about AI for years, unlike firms who only woke up to the technology recently.

He said Wang has coined a term for them: “AI tourists.”

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Know More

At the company’s tech summit, Wang told the audience that his relationship to national security was “deeply personal” and rooted in the work of his parents, physicists who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

“I’m dedicated to helping our government provide warfighters with the tools and technologies they need to maintain a strategic advantage on the battlefields in the coming decades,” he said.

Scale AI, which is backed by an estimated $600 million in venture capital funding, is not known for developing massive models like ChatGPT. Instead, it provides the secret sauce that makes them powerful: humans. Some 240,000 people around the world earn money training AI programs on Scale’s worker-facing platform, Remotasks. The company is a major player in the often secretive data annotation industry.

In Scale’s early years, many of those workers labeled images and videos for self-driving cars, helping them to learn to distinguish, for example, a road obstacle ahead from rain drops on the windshield. Scale recruited people from all over the world, but especially in countries like Kenya, Venezuela, and the Philippines, said Julian Posada, a professor at Yale University who studies the data annotation industry.

More recently, Scale has begun courting the federal government, which meant needing to vet qualified workers in the U.S. Last year, it announced it was opening an office in St. Louis, Missouri that would initially employ 200 people, calling it “a strategic business opportunity to conduct geospatial work for government.” Since then, Scale has helped identify buildings damaged by the war in Ukraine and deployed an AI model for the U.S. military.

In January of last year, Scale touted that it would provide AI services to the Department of Defense as part of a $249 million contract, but it’s not clear what percentage of those funds it captured. Forbes estimates that Scale has received around $60 million in government contracts to date. A spokesperson for the company declined to provide revenue numbers.

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Louise’s view

Scale’s outsized presence in Washington may open lawmakers’ eyes to the immense amount of human work that goes into developing AI. ChatGPT was trained on billions of text snippets from the internet, but what makes its answers sound lifelike is a process called reinforcement learning from human feedback (RLHF), essentially having a real person rate the AI’s responses and correct them for inaccuracies.

Scale and its competitors are the ones responsible for providing that labor, as well as ensuring it gets recognized. “We absolutely think it’s important to acknowledge the role that human feedback and human alignment plays in making these models actually useful for different use cases,” Karunamurthy said. “It’s not just understanding how the sausage is made, it’s actually the really critical piece to make AI useful to human beings.”

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Room for Disagreement

As AI models become more sophisticated, Scale’s labor costs are likely going to increase significantly. Clients will be more likely to demand trainers with expertise in topics like law, medicine, or foreign languages, which can be pricey to hire. Scale recently listed some of these contract roles on its own website, rather than on Remotasks. They paid around $40 an hour, whereas someone training self-driving cars in Venezuela on Remotasks might only make $1.

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The View From Data Annotators

Data annotators who spoke to The Verge’s Josh Dzieza said they were largely unaware that Remotasks was connected to Scale AI, since the two do not mention one another on their websites. “I really am wasting my life here if I made somebody a billionaire and I’m earning a couple of bucks a week,” said one worker, who at the time was labeling the emotions of people ordering Domino’s pizza.

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Notable

  • Forbes once declared Wang the “youngest self-made billionaire,” but the magazine recently estimated that his 15% stake in Scale AI is now worth around $630 million on the private market; Scale contended the figure is more like $890 million.
  • Wang announced in January that Scale was cutting 20% of its staff, citing the fact that many of its clients were “experiencing a painful market correction.”
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