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Inside the OpenAI Library – The New York Times| GuyWhoKnowsThings

The two-story library has oriental rugs, lamps with shades adorning its desks, and rows of hardcover books lining its walls. It is the central architectural piece of the offices of OpenAI, the startup whose online chatbot, ChatGPT, showed the world that machines can Instantly generate your own poetry and prose.

The building, once a mayonnaise factory, looks like a typical tech office, with its communal workspaces, well-equipped 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. Its shelves offer everything from Homer's “The Iliad” to David Deutsch's “The Beginning of Infinity,” a favorite of Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI.

Built at Altman's request and packed with titles suggested by his staff, the OpenAI library is an apt metaphor for the world's most popular technology company, whose success was fueled by language: lots and lots of language. The OpenAI chatbot was not built like your average internet application. ChatGPT learned its skills Analyze large amounts of text written, edited and curated by humans.including encyclopedia articles, news, poetry and, yes, books.

The library also represents the central paradox of OpenAI technology. Authors and editors, including the New York Times, are suing OpenAI, alleging that the company illegally used their copyrighted content to build its artificial intelligence systems. Many authors worry that technology will ultimately take away their livelihood.

Many OpenAI employees, on the other hand, believe that the company is using human creativity to drive 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's headquarters and designed its library. “Even though things may seem to be going in different directions, the library serves as a constant reminder of human creativity.”

When OpenAI hired Gaffney's company to renovate the building in 2019, Altman said he wanted a library with an academic aura.

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

“The dining room and living room of my house are inside a library: books from floor to ceiling,” Altman said in an interview. “There's something about sitting in the midst of knowledge on large-scale shelves that I find interesting.”

Many titles, such as “English Masterpieces, 700-1900” and “Ideas and Images in World Art,” look like the heavy hardcover books that professional decorators strategically place inside hotel lobbies because they look good. Still, the library is a reflection of the organization that built it.

On a recent afternoon, two paperbacks sat side by side 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, a first version of the technology that powers ChatGPT).

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

Other employees said it's a much more inspiring place to work than a cubicle. “That's why so many people choose to work in the library,” Staudacher said.

Recently, Mr. Greene began entering lists of his favorite books into ChatGPT and asking for new recommendations. At one point, the chatbot recommended “The Book of Concern.” a posthumously published autobiography of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. A friend, who knew his tastes well, had recommended that he read the same book.

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

Ms. Gaffney, of architecture firm OpenAI, argued that this combination of humans and machines will continue. She then paused before adding: “That, at least, is what I hope and feel.”

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