The advancement in artificial intelligence has been one of the year’s most popular stories among both the media and on Wall St. At the front of the story has been Sam Altman and his company, OpenAI. In just a few days, Altman has been fired, rehired, and fired again, and hired by Microsoft, along with potentially hundreds of his former employees at OpenAI, [Editor’s update: It appears Altman has once again been hired back to OpenAI as of 11.22.23] and the whole thing is a mess. The Editorial Board of the Financial Times explains:
In its blazingly brief history, OpenAI has become famous for two things: astronomical technological ambition and comical corporate governance. That is not a happy combination.
The board’s abrupt sacking of Sam Altman, OpenAI’s chief executive, on Friday stunned Silicon Valley like few other events in recent decades. The poster boy for the generative artificial intelligence revolution, who had done so much to popularise OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot as a breakout consumer service, was ejected by four other members of the oversight board in a video call. Several other leading lights at OpenAI, including its president, Greg Brockman, quickly followed him out the door.
Much about the story — and exactly how it will end — remains mysterious. The board may well have had good reasons to dismiss Altman for being less than “consistently candid” with his fellow directors. Altman’s side hustle supporting the launch of an AI chip business certainly raised glaring concerns about possible conflicts of interest. But the board was itself less than consistently candid in explaining its decision to OpenAI’s employees, investors and Microsoft, which has heavily backed the start-up. More than 500 of OpenAI’s 770 employees on Monday signed an open letter calling for Altman to return and the board to resign, putting the company’s future into question. It has certainly vaporised its chances of raising fresh money at anything like the $86bn valuation recently touted.
But the affair raises broader issues about how AI firms are governed. If, as its evangelists trumpet, AI is so transformative, its corporate champions and guardians must display exemplary integrity, transparency and competence.
To be sure, OpenAI has always been a strange corporate creation. The research company was founded in 2015 as a not-for-profit outfit dedicated to developing AI safely for the benefit of humanity. But so vast are the costs of developing leading-edge models that it is hard for any non-commercial enterprise to remain in that game for long. So, while preserving a not-for-profit oversight board, OpenAI developed a for-profit business arm, enabling the company to attract outside investment and commercialise its services.
Action Line: Doomsday prophets warn that humanity won’t survive a vengeful AI. But episodes like this week’s fiasco at OpenAI beg the question, can AI survive humanity? Click here to subscribe to my free monthly Survive & Thrive letter.
E.J. Smith - Your Survival Guy
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