What’s up with… AI21 Labs, more AI stuff, Telenor

  • Intel and Comcast are the latest investors in AI21 Labs
  • The OpenAI/Sam Altman drama keeps on giving
  • Telenor gets pet friendly with its IoT strategy

In today’s industry news roundup: The venture capital arms of Intel and Comcast are the latest investors to pump money into GenAI startup AI21 Labs; heads are spinning in Silicon Valley as the drama revolving around Microsoft-backed OpenAI and its now former CEO Sam Altman takes new twists and turns; Telenor is turning its internet of things (IoT) pet tracking service into a standalone company; and much more!

One of the leading developers of large language models (LLMs) for generative AI (GenAI), AI21 Labs, has completed its $208m Series C round of funding with investments from Intel Capital, the venture capital arm of chip giant Intel, and Comcast Ventures, the venture capital arm of US cable giant Comcast. The duo added to the funds already raised in the Series C round from the likes of Google and Nvidia. It has now raised $336m and is valued at $1.4bn (giving it that ‘unicorn’ badge). “A multi-disciplinary approach is needed to deliver AI to the end user,” noted Anthony Lin, corporate vice president and head of Intel Capital. “The AI21 full-stack offering combines foundation models with successful applications and operation tools that will help enterprises accelerate GenAI adoption to increase productivity and affect their bottom and top line,” he added. Allison Goldberg, SVP and managing partner of Comcast Ventures and Startup Engagement, commented: “We are impressed with the strong team at AI21 and their ability to scale quickly in a rapidly evolving Generative AI landscape. We look forward to seeing how AI21 will deliver enterprise solutions to strategically leverage this technology in a way that is meaningful and reliable,” she added. The funding came at what you might call an interesting time in the AI sector…

Do you have a box of popcorn handy? The Sam Altman/OpenAI drama isn’t over yet… Following the weekend’s shenanigans, which started with Altman being sacked as the CEO of ChatGPT developer OpenAI and ended with Microsoft (a major investor in OpenAI) announcing that it was building a new advanced AI research team around Altman and a number of his former colleagues, pressure is growing on the OpenAI board to reinstate Altman. The most vocal and public pressure to do so is coming from OpenAI’s staff (about 770 employees), more than 95% of whom have signed a letter demanding that Altman be reinstated and that the board be ousted, according to Wired: It has a full transcript of the letter, which is scathing of the board, accusing its members of lacking “the competence to oversee OpenAI.” If their demands are not met, they are threatening to jump ship and go to Microsoft, leaving OpenAI with little in the way of human resource (which has something of an ironic tone to it…). In yet a further twist, one of the staff members to have signed the letter is Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist, who is believed to have turned the board against Altman in the first place. He took to X (FKA Twitter) to beg forgiveness for his actions. “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company,” he posted. What a saga! Scriptwriters will be learning a thing or two from this… maybe David Fincher might fancy another run at Silicon Valley following the success of The Social Network, the movie about the rise of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. 

Why all the fuss about OpenAI? Well, while it is best known for its wildly popular generative AI (GenAI) tool ChatGPT, its main stated mission is “to ensure that artificial general intelligence [AGI] – AI systems that are generally smarter than humans – benefits all of humanity” and to ensure that the AGI tools it develops are “safe”. That safety element is, of course, a big deal and has been the subject of recent gatherings, most notably the AI Safety Summit held recently in the UK, and proclamations (mostly about the dangers of AI). In addition, its technology output is already underpinning the AI services on offer, and is being developed, by big names. One of these is Microsoft of course, which has integrated ChatGPT into its Bing search engine and has OpenAI technology at the heart of its Microsoft 365 Copilot developments, but it also includes the likes of Japan’s Rakuten, Morgan Stanley, Salesforce and many others. It does not, though, have a stated aim to make money and deliver investor returns. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes in the near future. And what’s the likely outcome? According to experienced tech sector investment analyst Richard Windsor, Microsoft will, one way or another, end up owning or controlling OpenAI sooner rather than later – check out his reasoning in this blog.    

Speaking of GenAI and money, here’s a stat for our times… In 2022, investors around the world pumped $3.9bn into generative AI startups. This year, up to 19 September, investors have funded GenAI startups to the tune of $17.8bn, according to The Wall Street Journal, though it should be noted that a large chunk of this year’s figure is the reported $10bn that Microsoft said it would invest in OpenAI. Other GenAI companies to have received funding this year include Anthropic (in which SK Telecom invested $100m), Cohere and, of course, AI21 Labs.   

And still with smart machines… The agreement on AI regulation reached by France, Germany and Italy (as reported on 20 November) runs counter to, and could result in a delay to or even scrapping of, the European Union’s proposed AI Act, according to Politico. The bone of contention revolves around exactly what should be regulated: France, Germany and Italy want the focus of regulation to be on the application of AI tools and not the regulation of the actual technology, which is the approach that the act’s authors have been taking so far.  

Norwegian telco Telenor has announced it is turning its internet of things (IoT) pet tracking service into a standalone company. Its service, called Mitt Spor, was launched in 2020 to provide customers with “a comprehensive overview” of the location of their pets, and will become a separate venture, called Telenor Tracking Solutions. The new entity will receive an investment of 25m Norwegian kroner ($2.3m) from Telenor Amp, the operator group’s division that manages its portfolio of adjacent businesses and companies. Telenor Amp will act as a majority owner, while a minority stake will be held by DyreID, a pet management system app owned by the Norwegian Veterinary Association. Currently, the service allows real-time tracking and alerts if a dog is “on the loose”, and the company envisions launching a tracking device for cats in the future. “Mitt Spor started small, but we see potential for further growth and partnerships. That’s why we are now spinning off both the service and the IoT team from Telenor Norway,” explained Dan Ouchterlony, head of Telenor Amp. He added that the establishment of Telenor Tracking Solutions will allow the telco group to tap a “significant market potential” and to build “a holistic ecosystem to ensure the safety, health, and wellbeing of pets”. Read more.

Altice, the multinational telecom operator owned by billionaire Patrick Drahi, appears to be raising some of the funds it needs to reduce the size of its $60bn debt mountain by selling a majority stake in its French datacentre business, which comprises 257 facilities interconnected by the fibre data transport network run by SFR, the main operating unit of Altice France. Altice has carved off the operation into a new unit called UltraEdge and has sold a 70% stake to Morgan Stanley Investment Management. Read more.   

Veon, the operator group with mobile networks in multiple countries across Asia, Europe and Africa, booked improved results for the third quarter of 2023. In its announcement for “selected financial and operating results” in the three-month period ending 30 September, the telco reported total revenues of US$945m, which represents a 6.1% year-on-year increase in reported currency and is 19.3% higher in local currency. Its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) were 17% higher, to US$444m. Notably, Veon has managed to also make significant cost cuts, with its capital expenditure (capex) declining by 29.8% year on year to US$131m. Veon Group CEO Kaan Terzioğlu pointed to the company’s digital operator strategy as a driver for “market share and wallet share gains across all our operations”. “At the end of the third quarter, multiplay customers who benefit from our digital services, as well as 4G voice and data, accounted for nearly 24% of our subscriber base and 42% of our subscribers revenues in the B2C [business-to-consumer] segment. Beyond our connectivity base, we served nearly 30 million digital-only users with our digital applications,” Veon’s chief explained. And after the company finalised its exit from Russia in September, Terzioğlu noted that as the telco’s top priority is financial discipline, the company will be “further optimising our cost structure and capital structure”. 

Three UK has appointed Stephen Reidy as its new chief information officer (CIO) after his predecessor Belinda Finch left following three years with the company. Reidy will acquire the role having served as CIO for Three Ireland since 2014, and will now lead a dual role in the technology functions of both businesses. He will be responsible for IT transformation, IT strategy and architecture, data and programme delivery. His previous roles include senior leadership positions at O2 Ireland and Orange UK. Read more.

Belgian technology, energy and industrial development firm Nethys is converting its 25% + one share stake in Voo, the cable operator now majority owned by Orange following an acquisition process that was completed earlier this year, for an 11% stake in Orange Belgium, the companies have announced. 

- The staff, TelecomTV

Email Newsletters

Sign up to receive TelecomTV's top news and videos, plus exclusive subscriber-only content direct to your inbox.