“Hi Trish…I saw a bunch of stuff go down at OpenAI with Sam Altman. Can u explain what happened?”
Hi there, and welcome back to Ask Trish! I hope you’re all well and having a great week (and end to November! Can you believe the end of the month is already here?).
Thanks so much to this week’s question-er for this fantastic, incredibly timely question…indeed, if you’ve been following the news recently (particularly tech-related news!), you may have seen a truly unexpected set of events go down at leading AI company OpenAI earlier this month. The developments sent shock waves through the tech world, with folks (me included!) literally on the edges of our seats to see what the #heck would happen. It now seems that – at least for the time being – things are more or less settled, but it’s not clear how long that’ll last, and there’s no doubt that these developments have important implications for the AI space…
But let’s be real…a LOT went down, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. But don’t fret – that’s what I’m here for. In this week’s post, I get into 1) what the heck happened at OpenAI, 2) why it all matters, and 3) what we can learn from what happened. Sound like a plan? Let’s get into it!
First and foremost, what exactly happened at OpenAI? Well, it all started on Friday, November 17th (less than two weeks ago!), when OpenAI announced what they called “a leadership transition,” sharing that their well-known CEO, Sam Altman, had been removed by OpenAI’s Board. If you’re wondering…Hold up…how the Board can actually do that?, great question.
OpenAI has an unusual organization structure. It’s a non-profit organization, governed by a Board that is dedicated to the mission of advancing AI’s benefits over profit. Now, OpenAI also has a for-profit arm that has received billions of dollars of investment – but even that arm remains committed first to OpenAI’s mission of advancing AI for good, rather than generating financial returns.
Per their announcement, the Board found that Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications.” (Some commentators believe that the dispute was about Altman’s commitment to developing AI safely, with guardrails in place to safeguard humanity….but no doubt, the verbiage was confusing, and a lot of folks were left scratching their heads, wondering why OpenAI had made this call.) Anyway, the result was…Altman was out.
By the weekend, tech giant Microsoft, which reportedly has a $13 billion investment in OpenAI, had announced that they had hired Altman to lead a Microsoft-owned AI lab. Had this gone through, it would’ve been a huge win for Microsoft. But things didn’t end there…by the end of the weekend, more than 700 of OpenAI’s 770 employees signed a letter urging the Board to resign and asking them to reinstate Altman (and Greg Brockman, then the company’s former President). It seems that this – along with widespread criticism of the Board’s initial, vague announcement – led the Board to reverse course, and by late Tuesday night (the following week), they had an agreement in place to bring Altman back. The agreement also included several members of the board resigning and bringing in new board members, including Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury secretary and former president of Harvard University. Quite the turn of events, I know…
Okay…so that’s what happened. But what the heck does it all mean? Why does it matter? Well, first and foremost, the obvious: there’s clearly a lot of tension at OpenAI. Based on reports, some of this tension is over safety issues. No doubt that the folks at OpenAI are struggling to find the “right balance” just as much as anyone else. A lot of folks have also mentioned that it encapsulates why, as a CEO or C-Suite executive, it is so incredibly important to keep up a good relationship with your board. Boards can turn against you, and it can be nasty. Another way to think about what happened is to consider who are the “winners” and “losers” of this whole thing. No doubt, Microsoft was almost a winner – and even if they lost Altman in the 9th hour, they still have a strong relationship with him, one that they can cultivate and grow. Altman was arguably a winner in all of this too – that so many of his company’s employees rallied behind him definitely says something. OpenAI certainly seems to be the “loser” in all of this. (To be clear, I’m not saying that they made the wrong call – just that their execution seems to have gone poorly.) Indeed, between almost losing Altman to a major competitor and putting their internal struggles on public display, it was a tough week for OpenAI.
So what can we learn from all of this? What’s the bigger picture? I’d argue that the bigger picture-level takeaway is that when it comes to AI development, it seems that non-profit aims and missions are going to clash – possibly intractably – with for-profit efforts, and these will be thorny, thorny challenges to work through. Does this mean that we can’t have AI for good (or that we can only have AI that advances humanity, but not a burgeoning, valuable AI tool sector)? No, not necessarily…but it does mean that we are, at least at this moment, not 100% sure how to navigate realizing the benefits of AI while avoiding the harm. Everyone, then – from researchers, to users, to technologists, to policymakers – need to work together to think critically and creatively about finding the ideal middle ground.
Fascinating stuff…now, as always, before I wrap up, I want to encourage y’all to share any Internet-related questions, thoughts, or perspectives here. Your contribution just might be featured in an upcoming TikTok/blog post! Not only do you get some helpful advice (and, a truly awe-inspiring, #incredible Ask Trish video), our entire Ask Trish community benefits, too. Your decision to share a question might inspire someone with a question of their own to do the same! So, please – take just 30 seconds – 1 minute (no kidding, that’s really all the time it takes! This is not hard, folks!), and fill out the form. I’m so looking forward to hearing from y’all. Thank you a ton in advance for your important contributions.
Have a great start to December,