Asana’s Dustin Moskovitz is optimistic about AI however involved about danger

Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder and CEO of Asana.


The typical playbook for a successful tech founder looks something like this.

Start a business with full ownership. Sell ​​significant portions to venture capitalists as the business progresses. Eventually become a minority owner. Take the company public. Sell ​​more inventory over time.

Asana’s Dustin Moskovitz took that script and completely rewrote the ending.

Moskovitz, still known to many as the co-founder of Facebook, launched Asana in 2008 to improve collaboration through software. When he took the company through a direct listing in 2020, his ownership was around 36%.

Then he went shopping. After purchasing 480,000 shares of Asana in June, Moskovitz’s ownership grew to 111.4 million shares, which is over 51% of shares outstanding. In March, Asana announced that Moskovitz had a trading plan to buy up to 30 million more of its Class A shares this year, sending the stock up almost 19% the next day.

“It’s been a wild two years in the market and there have been some interesting buying opportunities,” Moskovitz said in an interview with CNBC.

Even after a 66% surge this year, Asana’s stock is more than 80% down from its late-2021 record high.

For Moskovitz, who has a net worth of over $12 billion — largely from his early involvement with Facebook, now Meta — taking majority ownership of Asana isn’t about control. Rather, he sees it as the best way to invest to support his philanthropy.

In 2010, Moskovitz signed the Giving Pledge, a pledge by some of the world’s richest people to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. Moskovitz and his wife, former journalist Cari Tuna, distribute their funds through Good Ventures based on recommendations from Open Philanthropy.

When it comes to spending that money, there is no greater concern for Moskovitz than the future of artificial intelligence.

Good Ventures donated $30 million over three years to startup OpenAI in 2017, long before generative AI or ChatGPT entered the public lexicon. OpenAI, now worth about $30 billion, was founded as a not-for-profit organization, and Open Philanthropy said at the time it wanted to “help play a role in OpenAI’s approach to security and governance issues.”

One of the ten focus areas Open Philanthropy lists on its website is “potential risks from advanced AI”. The organization recommended a $5 million grant to the National Science Foundation to encourage research into methods to ensure the security of artificial intelligence systems and $5.56 million to the University of California, Berkeley for “creating an academic center with a focus on AI security”. Overall, Open Philanthropy reports having provided over 170 grants in excess of $300 million in this focus area.

“I definitely think there’s a lot of risk there — something I think about a lot,” Moskovitz said.

Moskovitz founded Facebook in 2004 with Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin at Harvard University. After Facebook’s IPO in 2012, he became a billionaire and held more shares than anyone but Zuckerberg.

Even after acquiring additional Asana stock in 2022 and 2023, his ownership is approximately $2.6 billion, less than the $4.6 billion in Facebook stock he owns, according to FactSet.

“I just find myself in a unique situation where I came to the table with an existing source of wealth,” Moskovitz said. “Even things that appear like gigantic purchases are still a relatively normal part of my net worth compared to other founders.”

Moskovitz has agreed not to purchase all of Asana’s outstanding shares or even to purchase 90% of its common stock. According to a filing, he will also keep the majority of his directors independent while complying with New York Stock Exchange rules.

Moskovitz declined to discuss whether he was buying up shares to prevent activist investors from coming in and trying to force change. Activists have been active in the cloud software space, particularly at Foreclosurewhich responded to the pressure by expanding its buyback program and increasing profits.

OpenAI CEO Samuel Altman will appear for testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law in Washington, DC on May 16, 2023.

Win Mcnamee | Getty Images

Recently, Moskovitz’s worlds collided.

OpenAI has gone from niche startup to hottest tech company after the release of ChatGPT in November. Moskovitz previously experimented with the company’s DALL-E text-to-image conversion technology. He said OpenAI CEO Sam Altman set up a “Labs account” for him in April last year.

After launching ChatGPT, Moskovitz had fun asking the chatbot to come up with goals that could help solve California’s housing problem.

Meanwhile, Asana joins the ranks of companies announcing enhancements to their products with generative AI capabilities that can take human input and present text, images, or audio in response. Earlier this month, Asana announced that it has granted some customers access to multiple generative AI capabilities based on OpenAI’s models.

“Chat is just a paradigm for how to use these technologies,” Moskovitz told CNBC. “If you integrate them into workflows like work management, like optimizing automation flows or helping with decision making, you can literally ask the system questions and get a summary and a recommendation.”

Moskovitz said that with more complicated tasks, like adding structure to projects, “the potential really increases.” Rather than just asking for specific answers, the power of technology is to take “a lot of information and some kind of vague target” and then “give something roughly in the right direction,” he said.

Asana could spend $5 million or more on OpenAI technology next year, Moskovitz said, adding that he was “very impressed with GPT-3,” the company’s previous major language model, “and even more so with GPT-4 impressed,” which was announced in March.

Moskovitz used six minutes of Asana’s 51-minute conference call in early June to tout the company’s approach to AI. He used the acronym 41 times compared to 32 AI references of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on his company’s earnings announcement in April. Microsoft is the main investor of OpenAI.

Asana is “just personally connected to the AI ​​labs that are pioneering,” Moskovitz said.

The connections are actually quite profound. Altman invested in Asana in 2016. On the Asana earnings call, Moskovitz reminded analysts that his company and OpenAI “share a common board member in Adam D’Angelo,” a former Facebook tech chief who later founded online Q&A startup Quora.

Moskovitz invested in AI startup Anthropic in 2021, the same year he co-invested with Altman in nuclear fusion startup Helion.

Much like Altman, Moskovitz is deeply optimistic about AI and concerned about the damage it can do.

Moskovitz was one of many entrepreneurs who signed a statement in May that said, “Reducing the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority, alongside other societal risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” The letter came from the nonprofit Center for AI Safety.

But Moskovitz was not among the signatories to the open letter from the nonprofit Future of Life Institute in March, which called on AI labs to put the training of the most sophisticated AI models on hold for six months or more. At the top of the list of signatories Tesla CEO Elon Musk, an early proponent of OpenAI, warned that we should be very concerned about advanced AI, calling it “a greater risk to society than cars, airplanes or medicines”.

Moskovitz said Musk’s fears weren’t entirely overblown and that they both wanted “to bring this technology to the world in a safe way.”

“Elon is looking at this from multiple angles,” he said. “I think we kind of share the view on potential existential risk issues, but maybe not so much the view on AI censorship, vigilance and stuff like that.”

In December, Musk tweeted that “the danger of training AI to be awake – in other words, lie – is deadly.”

Moskovitz helped create a 12-point list of potential policy changes for US lawmakers to consider.

“What I’m most interested in is making sure that cutting-edge later generations like GPT-5 and GPT-6 go through safety assessments before they’re released into the world,” he said. “I think that requires regulation to coordinate all actors.”

In a tweet last month, he even came up with a word to express his confused views.

“Excited for KI!” he wrote.

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Anthropic’s founders.

REGARD: Elon Musk is creating an AI startup called X.AI to take on OpenAI’s ChatGPT

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