Inside the OpenAI Library – The New York Times

The two-story library has oriental rugs, shaded lamps dotting the desks, and rows of hardback books lining the walls. It is the architectural centerpiece of the offices of OpenAI, the start-up whose online chatbot, ChatGPT, showed the world that machines can instantly generate their own poetry and prose.

The building, which was once a mayonnaise factory, looks like a typical tech office, with its communal work spaces, well-stocked micro-kitchens and private nap rooms spread across three floors in San Francisco's Mission District.

But then there's that library, with the feel of a Victorian-era reading room. His shelves offer everything from Homer's “The Iliad” to David Deutsch's “The Beginning of Infinity,” a favorite of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

Built at Altman's request and stocked with titles suggested by his staff, the OpenAI library is an apt metaphor for the world's hottest tech company, whose success has been fueled by language: lots of language. OpenAI's chatbot wasn't built like the average internet app. ChatGPT learned its capabilities by analyzing massive amounts of text written, edited, and edited by humans, including encyclopedia articles, news stories, poems, and, yes, books.

The library also represents the paradox at the heart of OpenAI's technology. Authors and publishers, including the New York Times, have sued OpenAI, alleging that the company illegally used their copyrighted content to build its artificial intelligence systems. Many authors fear that technology will eventually take away their livelihood.

Many OpenAI employees, on the other hand, believe that the company is using human creativity to fuel more human creativity. They believe that their use of copyrighted works is “fair use” under the law, because they are transforming these works into something new.

“To say this is a public debate right now is an understatement,” said Shannon Gaffney, co-founder and managing partner of SkB Architects, the architecture firm that renovated OpenAI headquarters and designed its library. “Even though things seem to be going in different directions, the library serves as a constant reminder of human creativity.”

When OpenAI commissioned Ms. Gaffney's firm to renovate the building in 2019, Mr. Altman said he wanted a library with an academic aura.

He wanted it to be a memento of the Green Library, a Romanesque library at Stanford University, where he was a student for two years before dropping out to create a social media app; the Rose Reading Room, a Beaux-Arts study room on the top floor of the New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan; and the library-like bar inside the now-defunct Nomad Hotel, 15 blocks south of the Rose.

“My dining room and living room at home are inside a library — floor-to-ceiling books all around,” Altman said in an interview. “There's something about sitting in the center of knowledge on shelves at scale that I find interesting.”

Many titles, such as “English Masterpieces, 700-1900” and “Ideas and Images in World Art,” look like the heavy hardback books that professional decorators strategically place in hotel lobbies because they look the part. However, the library reflects the organization that built it.

On a recent afternoon, two paperbacks sat next to each other at eye level: “Birds of Lake Merritt” (a field guide to birds found at a wildlife refuge in Oakland, California.) and “Fake Birds of Lake Merritt” (a parody written by GPT-3, an early version of the technology that drives ChatGPT).

Some employees see the library as a quieter place to work. Long Ouyang, an artificial intelligence researcher, holds a movable desk against the wall. Others see it as an unusually elegant relaxation room. On weekends, Ryan Greene, another researcher, streams his digital music through speakers hidden among hardcover books.

According to other employees, it's a much more stimulating place to work than a cubicle. “This is why so many people choose to work in libraries,” Ms. Staudacher said.

Recently, Mr. Greene began posting lists of his favorite books in ChatGPT and asking for new recommendations. At one point, the chatbot recommended “The book of restlessness“,” a posthumously published autobiography of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. A friend, who knew his tastes well, had advised him to read the same book.

“Given trends and patterns of things that have happened in the past, technology can suggest things for the future,” Greene said.

Ms Gaffney, of the architecture firm OpenAI, argued that this fusion of man and machine will continue. She then paused, before adding: “This, at least, is what I hope and feel.”

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