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OpenAI and Jony Ive in talks to raise $1bn from SoftBank for AI device venture

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OpenAI is in advanced talks with former Apple designer Sir Jony Ive and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son to launch a venture to build the “iPhone of artificial intelligence”, fuelled by more than $1bn in funding from the Japanese conglomerate.

Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief, has tapped Ive’s company LoveFrom, which the designer founded when he left Apple in 2019, to develop the ChatGPT creator’s first consumer device, according to three people familiar with the plan.

Altman and Ive have held brainstorming sessions at the designer’s San Francisco studio about what a new consumer product centred on OpenAI’s technology would look like, the people said.

They hope to create a more natural and intuitive user experience for interacting with AI, in the way that the iPhone’s innovations in touchscreen computing unleashed the mass-market potential of the mobile internet.

The process of identifying a design or device remains at an early stage with many different ideas on the table, they said.

Son, SoftBank’s founder and chief executive, has also been involved in some of the discussions, pitching a central role for Arm — the chip designer in which the Japanese conglomerate holds a 90 per cent stake — as well as offering financial backing.

Son, Altman and Ive have discussed creating a company that would draw on talent and technology from their three groups, the people said, with SoftBank investing more than $1bn in the venture.

Discussions are said to be “serious”, but no deal has been agreed, they cautioned, and it could be several months before a venture is formally announced. Any resulting hardware product is likely to take years to bring to market.

OpenAI, SoftBank and LoveFrom declined to comment. The Information previously reported some aspects of their product discussions.

Ive played a central role in the creation of the first iPhone, which was launched in 2007, ushering in a new era of personal computing.

But as the smartphone market reaches a plateau, many in Silicon Valley have been considering what might become the next big consumer electronics device.

Virtual reality headsets such as Meta’s Quest and smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo have been billed as having potential. But nothing has come close to rivalling the smartphone, which has become an essential item for billions of people.

For Ive, the compulsive nature of many smartphone users’ behaviour has become a worry. He told the Financial Times in 2018 that Apple had a “moral responsibility” to mitigate the iPhone’s unintended consequences, such as addictive apps, and has said he limits his children’s screen time.

The project with OpenAI presents an opportunity to create a way of interacting with computers that is less reliant on screens, according to people familiar with his thinking.

This week OpenAI announced upgrades to its breakthrough chatbot, ChatGPT, including capabilities to control the app through voice or by uploading an image and which allow it to browse the web.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that OpenAI, which is backed by Microsoft, was considering a share sale that would value the San Francisco-based company at as much as $90bn, tripling its valuation in less than a year.

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