What to make of the drama at OpenAI after CEO Sam Altman’s firing?
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As you’ve probably heard by now, things in the artificial intelligence industry are a bit in flux. Just to recap that fluxiness: On Friday, the board of OpenAI — the maker of ChatGPT — fired CEO Sam Altman, saying he was “not consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
Over the weekend, the acting CEO tried and failed to hire Altman back, then Microsoft gave him a job, then the board hired a different CEO, and Monday about 500 of the 700 or so OpenAI employees said they’ll leave if Altman isn’t reinstated.
Like I said, fluxy.
So beyond all that boardroom drama, what does this mean for the future of a technology with so much economic promise and peril?
Nathan Lambert was attending a conference about responsible AI at Stanford University when he got the news that OpenAI had fired Sam Altman.
“I either got a text or a Slack message, and I was like, ‘Holy s—,'” he said. “There were unfortunately OpenAI employees also at this conference, having to go into an all-glass conference room on the side of this event on a prolonged all-hands call.”
Lambert is a research scientist for the Allen Institute for AI, a nonprofit research group that does some work with Microsoft, an OpenAI investor.
He said the whole AI engineering community is kind of in shock right now. And if Altman really is gone for good, it’s a “huge shake-up.”
“I recently changed jobs, and I had floated the idea of joining OpenAI,” said Lambert. “There will be a broad reshuffling of talent across the industry.”
Where exactly that talent resettles — Big Tech, startups, academia — will have a lot to do with how individuals feel about the trade-offs between AI profits and safety.
OpenAI was built as a nonprofit partly to resolve that trade-off, but once Microsoft and other investors started pouring in billions of dollars, prioritizing safety got costly, said Gary Marcus, a professor emeritus at New York University.
“Once you open Pandora’s box and, you know, start sensing all that money, you’re gonna have tension,” he said.
Marcus said the very public OpenAI chaos is a teachable moment for policymakers.
“It should be a huge wake-up call to regulators,” he said. “You can’t just assume that these companies will self-regulate and do the best.”
Marcus said while it’s still unclear whether the board was justified in firing Altman, what is clear is that OpenAI is less stable than what the public might have assumed. Or, considering the power of this technology, maybe what the public might have hoped for.
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