Mark Zuckerberg is popular again thanks to Meta's open source artificial intelligence

When Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last year that his company would release an artificial intelligence system, Jeffrey Emanuel had reservations.

Mr. Emanuel, a part-time hacker and full-time AI enthusiast, had tinkered with “closed” AI models, including those from OpenAI, meaning the systems' underlying code was not accessible or editable. When Zuckerberg introduced Meta's artificial intelligence system by invitation to only a handful of academics, Emanuel was worried that the technology would remain limited to only a small circle of people.

But in a release last summer of an updated AI system, Zuckerberg made the code “open source” so it could be freely copied, modified and reused by anyone.

Mr. Emanuel, the founder of blockchain start-up Pastel Network, has been sold. He said he appreciated that Meta's AI system was powerful and easy to use. Most of all, he liked how Zuckerberg embraced hacker code that plans to make technology freely available, largely the opposite of what Google, OpenAI and Microsoft have done.

“We have this champion in Zuckerberg,” said Mr. Emanuel, 42. “Thank God we have someone protecting the open source ethos from these other big companies.”

Zuckerberg has become the highest-profile technology executive to support and promote the open source model for artificial intelligence. That put the 40-year-old billionaire squarely on the receiving end of a contentious debate over whether the technology has the potential to change the world. dangerous to be made available to any programmer who wants it.

Microsoft, OpenAI and Google have more of a closed AI strategy to protect their technology, out of what they say is an abundance of caution. But Zuckerberg has strongly argued that technology should be open to everyone.

“This technology is so important, and the opportunities are so great, that we should open source it and make it available as widely as possible, so everyone can benefit from it,” he said in an Instagram video in January.

This stance has turned Zuckerberg into the unlikely man of the hour in many Silicon Valley developer communities, prompting talk of a “glow-up” and a sort of “Zuckaissance.” Even as the CEO continues to face scrutiny over misinformation and child safety issues on Meta's platforms, many engineers, programmers, technologists and others have embraced his stance on making artificial intelligence available to the masses.

Since Meta's first fully open-source AI model, called LLaMA 2, was released in July, the software has been downloaded more than 180 million times, the company said. A more powerful version of the model, LLaMA 3, released in April, topped the download charts on Hugging Face, a community site for AI code, at record speeds.

Developers have created tens of thousands of custom AI programs on top of Meta's AI software to do everything from helping doctors read X-ray scans to creating dozens of digital chatbot assistants.

“I told Mark, I think open source LLaMA is the most popular thing Facebook has ever done in the tech community,” said Patrick Collison, chief executive of payments company Stripe, who recently joined a group of Meta strategic consultancy which is aimed at helping the company make strategic decisions about its AI technology. Meta owns Facebook, Instagram and other apps.

Zuckerberg's newfound popularity in tech circles is surprising because of his rocky history with developers. Over the course of two decades, Meta has sometimes knocked the ground out from under programmers' feet. In 2013, for example, Zuckerberg bought Parse, a company that made developer tools, to attract programmers to create apps for the Facebook platform. Three years later, he discontinued the initiative, angering developers who had invested time and energy in the project.

A spokesperson for Zuckerberg and Meta declined to comment. (The New York Times last year sued OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft, alleging copyright infringement of news content related to artificial intelligence systems.)

Open source software has a long and storied history in Silicon Valley, with major technology battles revolving around open versus proprietary (or closed) systems.

In the early days of the Internet, Microsoft committed to providing the software that managed the Internet's infrastructure, only to lose ground to open source software projects. More recently, Google open sourced its Android mobile operating system to complement Apple's closed iPhone operating system. Firefox, the Internet browser, WordPress, a blogging platform, and Blender, a popular set of animation software tools, were all built using open source technologies.

Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook in 2004, has long supported open source technology. In 2011, Facebook started the Open Compute Project, a nonprofit that freely shares server and equipment designs within data centers. In 2016, Facebook also developed Pytorch, an open source software library widely used for building AI applications. The company also shares designs of the computer chips it has developed.

“Mark is a great student of history,” said Daniel Ek, Spotify’s chief executive, who considers Mr. Zuckerberg a confidante. “Over time, in the IT sector, he realized that there have always been closed and open paths to take. And he always opened by default.”

At Meta, the decision to open source its AI was controversial. In 2022 and 2023, the company's policy and legal teams advocated a more conservative approach to releasing the software, fearing a backlash among regulators in Washington and the European Union. But metatech experts like Yann LeCun and Joelle Pineau, who lead AI research, pushed the open model, which they said would benefit the company more in the long term.

The engineers won. Zuckerberg agrees that if the code were open, it could be improved and safeguarded more quickly, he said in a post last year on his Facebook page.

Although LLaMA in open source means giving away computer code that Meta spent billions of dollars to create with no immediate return on investment, Zuckerberg calls it “a good deal.” As more developers use Meta's software and hardware tools, the more likely they are to become invested in its technology ecosystem, which helps entrench the company.

The technology has also helped Meta improve its internal AI systems, aiding in more relevant ad targeting and content recommendations across Meta's apps.

“It is 100% aligned with Zuckerberg's incentives and the benefits he can bring to Meta,” said Nur Ahmed, a researcher at MIT Sloan who studies artificial intelligence. “LLaMA is a win-win solution.”

Competitors are taking note. In February, Google open sourced the code for two AI models, Gemma 2B and Gemma 7B, a sign that it was feeling the heat from Zuckerberg's open source approach. Google did not respond to requests for comment. Other companies, including Microsoft, Mistral, Snowflake and Databricks, have also started offering open source models this year.

For some programmers, Zuckerberg's AI approach hasn't erased all the baggage of the past. Sam McLeod, 35, a software developer from Melbourne, Australia, deleted his Facebook accounts years ago after becoming uncomfortable with the company's track record on user privacy and other factors.

But more recently, he said, he acknowledged that Zuckerberg had released “cutting-edge” open source software models with “permissive licensing terms,” something that can't be said for other big tech companies.

Matt Shumer, 24, a developer from New York, said he has used closed AI models from Mistral and OpenAI to power digital assistants for his start-up, HyperWrite. But after Meta released its updated open-source AI model last month, Shumer began to rely heavily on that. Whatever reservations he had about Zuckerberg are a thing of the past.

“The developers started to see past a lot of the problems they had with him and Facebook,” Shumer said. “Right now, what he's doing is really good for the open source community.”

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