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One of the most bizarre incidents in tech history concluded last week. OpenAI made the surprising announcement that Sam Altman would be reinstated as its chief executive, just five days after the startup’s board of directors had announced his departure. At the company’s San Francisco office, the employees celebrated Mr. Altman’s return.
The reinstatement of Mr. Altman marked the culmination of a corporate drama charged with significant financial stakes, a persuasive campaign from allies, intense media scrutiny, and a belief among certain factions in the AI community urging caution in the development of their creations.
OpenAI, which had seemed on the brink of collapse for two days, is now set to replace its heavily criticized board of directors. The new board will feature a more conventional lineup, including figures like former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Bret Taylor, former executive of software giant Salesforce.
Bret Taylor is currently a board member at the e-commerce platform Shopify. He’s also the former co-CEO of Salesfore and was Twitter’s final board chair prior to Elon Musk’s acquisition of the social media platform. Larry Summers served as Treasury Secretary during the Clinton administration and was the president of Harvard University. An economist by training, Summers also led the Obama administration’s National Economic Council during the Global Financial Crisis. Adam D’Angelo is the only member of OpenAI’s previous board who still holds a seat. D’Angelo is the CEO of Quora and he spent several years at Meta.
Additional board members, possibly drawn from OpenAI’s major investor, Microsoft, and the AI research community, are expected to join soon. Mr. Altman was not named to the board on Tuesday night, and it remains unclear if he ever will be.
The emerging picture from this turmoil is of a company better equipped to handle the substantial funds it has received and the attention garnered since the release of ChatGPT. However, some argue that this transformation may divert OpenAI from its original mission of creating AI that is safe for the world.
The OpenAI saga has underscored the challenge of navigating the intersection between business interests seeking profit and researchers expressing concerns about the potential job displacement or threats arising from technologies like autonomous weapons.
The dismissal of Mr. Altman, 38, on Friday at noon plunged OpenAI into chaos, blindsiding its employees and Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in the company. OpenAI’s governance structure, controlled by the board of a nonprofit with investors lacking formal influence, took an unexpected turn when four board members, including Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, suddenly ousted Mr. Altman, citing a loss of trust in his commitment to the company’s mission of building A.I. for the benefit of humanity.
The immediate fallout saw OpenAI’s president, Greg Brockman, resigning in protest. The board had grown increasingly frustrated with Mr. Altman’s behaviour over the past year. Negotiations between Mr. Altman and the board, with Microsoft in the background, spanned from Sunday to Tuesday. While discussions aimed at creating a trusted board, Microsoft had a Plan B — hiring Mr. Altman for a new AI research lab with Mr. Brockman.
There are no known motives for the dismissal of Altman, but is seems that it has to do something with a letter from several staff researchers. The letter was sent to the board of directors, cautioning about a significant artificial intelligence breakthrough that they believed could pose a threat to humanity. This letter was the pivotal development leading to the board’s decision to remove Altman.
OpenAI developed a project called Q*, an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) project. Unlike a calculator that can handle a limited set of operations, AGI has the capacity to generalize, learn, and comprehend. Given vast computing resources, the new model was able to solve certain mathematical problems. Though only performing math on the level of grade-school students, the tests made the researchers very optimistic about Q*’s future success, but also risks.
In their letter to the board, researchers highlighted the capabilities and potential risks of AI, mentioning tests made for Q*. The exact safety concerns outlined in the letter were not specified. It is not clear how the letter influenced the dismissal of Altman, though.
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