The Second Coming of Sam Altman raises new fears of an artificial intelligence apocalypse

The new Open AI boss is the same old boss. But the company — and the AI ​​industry — may have changed profoundly over the past five days of high-stakes television. Sam Altman, CEO, co-founder and figurehead of OpenAI, was fired by the board of directors on Friday. By Tuesday night, after a mass protest organized by the majority of the startup’s employees, Altman was on his way back, and most of the current board members were gone. But this board, which was mostly independent of OpenAI’s operations and committed to its “For the Good of Humanity” mission statement, was crucial to the company’s uniqueness.

As Altman toured the world in 2023, warning media and governments of the existential risks of the technology he was building himself, he portrayed OpenAI’s unusual for-profit structure within a nonprofit as a buffer against irresponsible development of powerful AI. . Whatever Altman did with Microsoft’s billions, the board could keep him and the company’s other leaders in check. If, in the Board’s view, he begins to act dangerously or against the interests of humanity, the group can expel him. “The board can fire me, and I think that’s important,” Altman told Bloomberg in June.

“It turns out they couldn’t kick it out, and that was bad,” says Toby Ord, a senior research fellow in philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a leading voice among people warning that AI could pose an existential threat to humanity.

OpenAI’s chaotic leadership reset ended with a reshaping of the board of directors made up of corporate tech figures and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Two directors associated with the Effective Altruism movement, the only two women, were removed from the board. It has crystallized existing divisions over how to manage the future of artificial intelligence. The outcome is seen very differently by convicts who worry that artificial intelligence will destroy humanity; transhumanists who believe that technology will accelerate a utopian future; And those who believe in free market capitalism; They advocate strict regulation to contain tech giants who cannot be trusted to balance the potential harms of aggressively disruptive technologies with the desire to make money.

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“To some extent, this was a collision course that was set for a long time,” says Ord, who is also credited with founding the effective altruism movement, parts of which have become obsessed with the more pessimistic end of the AI ​​risk spectrum. “If it was the case that the OpenAI nonprofit board was fundamentally powerless to actually influence its behavior, then I think exposing its powerlessness was probably a good thing.”

Governance gap

Why OpenAI’s board decided to move against Altman remains a mystery. Its announcement of Altman’s departure as CEO said he “was not consistently forthcoming in his communications with the Board of Directors, which hindered his ability to exercise his responsibilities.” An internal OpenAI memo later clarified that Altman’s firing “was not done in response to wrongdoing.” Emmett Shear, the second of two interim executives running the company between Friday night and Wednesday morning, wrote after accepting the role that he asked why Altman was fired. “The board did not fire Sam over any specific safety disagreement,” he wrote. “Their thinking was completely different from that.” He pledged to open an investigation into the reasons for Altman’s dismissal.

The void left room for rumors, including that Altman was devoting too much time to side projects or had too much respect for Microsoft. It also promoted conspiracy theories, such as the idea that OpenAI had created artificial general intelligence (AGI), and that the board flipped an off switch on the advice of chief scientist, co-founder and board member Ilya Sutskever.

“What I know for sure is that we don’t have artificial general intelligence,” says David Schreier, professor of practice, artificial intelligence and innovation at Imperial College Business School in London. “I know for certain that there has been a colossal failure of governance.”

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