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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

OpenAI Boardroom Politics

Updated: Jan 18

The four-day corporate saga that reverberated across the industry and the globe has drawn to a close. In a dramatic turnaround, OpenAI's board has reinstated Sam Altman as CEO, a move akin to the return of a deposed monarch. Today, multiple media outlets reported on this resolution, highlighting a board reshuffle that includes former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and existing board member Adam D'Angelo, co-founder of Quora. The shake-up sees the departure of independent directors Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, along with Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI's chief scientist. This outcome follows a failed attempt to appoint Twitch's former head, Emmett Shear, as interim CEO. Shear demanded concrete evidence of Altman's alleged misconduct, threatening his resignation otherwise. A pivotal moment came when Ilya Sutskever, initially a key figure in the leadership challenge, expressed regret for his actions, influenced by an emotional plea from Greg Brockman's partner. This shift, coupled with the solidarity of over 700 OpenAI staff members in an open letter of protest, paved the way for intense negotiations and the eventual reinstatement of Altman.

Prior to Sam Altman's abrupt departure from OpenAI, the organization's board was entangled in internal conflicts and disagreements. This discord intensified as OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot catapulted the company into the mainstream spotlight. The friction reached a peak when Altman, then CEO, sought to dismiss a board member over a research paper perceived as critical of OpenAI. Concurrently, Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist and a board member himself, harbored doubts about Altman's candor in board discussions. A significant point of contention lay in Altman's aggressive expansion strategy, which some board members felt needed to be more cautiously balanced against the imperative of AI safety.

The climax of this boardroom drama unfolded in a videoconference, where Sutskever, who had collaborated with Altman for eight years at OpenAI, delivered the board's decision to oust him. This revelation jolted the company's workforce and raised serious questions about the board's capability to steer such a prominent firm. The board's inability to reach consensus even on appointing new members reflected a deeper struggle within the AI industry: reconciling the profit-driven motives of business leaders with the ethical and societal concerns of AI researchers. These tensions underscore the challenge of developing AI technologies that could potentially reshape job markets or pose existential threats, like autonomous weaponry.

In the backdrop of these boardroom battles, the future of OpenAI was cast into uncertainty. Almost the entire employee base of OpenAI, numbering around 800, threatened to exit alongside Altman to join a new AI initiative at Microsoft, led by Altman and Greg Brockman, who resigned as OpenAI's president and board chairman in solidarity with Altman. This upheaval underscored the precariousness of leadership in high-stakes tech ventures and highlighted the delicate balance between visionary entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Despite the board's initial stance, there were hints of a possible reconciliation with Altman, though disagreements persisted over proposed conditions to enhance his engagement with the board.

Concluding the high-profile saga at OpenAI, the company announced on Tuesday evening an agreement for Sam Altman to reassume the CEO position, backed by a newly structured board led by former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor. This decision resolves the tumult that began with Altman's sudden removal last Friday, a move that had sent shockwaves through the tech community. The reconstituted board will include prominent figures such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Adam D'Angelo, co-founder of Quora. In line with these changes, independent directors Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, as well as Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI's chief scientist, will exit the board. Notably, Greg Brockman, former board chair and president until his Friday resignation, confirmed his return to OpenAI. Integral to this resolution is an independent investigation into the events leading to Altman's initial dismissal. The whirlwind developments, including an overwhelming employee backlash and an open letter demanding board resignation, significantly influenced the board's decision. This shift marks a return to the strategic direction Altman had set since 2019, especially post the creation of OpenAI's for-profit arm, enabling large investments from partners like Microsoft. The resolution, as articulated by Altman, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Brockman in their statements, aims for a more stable and effective governance structure, although it doesn't fully quell the broader debate over the pace of AI development and commercialization within the industry.

Altman's Strategic Shift towards Blitzscaling AI with Microsoft

Sam Altman's decision to align OpenAI with Microsoft was driven by a vision to blitzscale AI technology. Recognizing the immense potential and rapid evolution of AI, Altman sought a partnership that could provide the substantial resources and computing power necessary for groundbreaking developments. This strategic pivot towards blitzscaling – rapidly scaling a company to outpace competitors – necessitated a robust partnership. Microsoft, under the leadership of Satya Nadella, presented itself as an ideal partner during a serendipitous meeting at the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley. Nadella’s understanding of AI's safety and potential, coupled with Microsoft's substantial capital, made them a compelling choice for OpenAI's ambitious goals.

Image from [source]

The financial dynamics of the partnership were complex and somewhat akin to a Faustian bargain. Microsoft’s initial investment of $1 billion in 2022 was essentially structured as a loan rather than a straightforward equity investment. This arrangement required OpenAI to prioritize repaying this amount before distributing any profits. For instance, if OpenAI generated a profit of $1.5 billion at the end of 2023, they would first need to repay Microsoft's $1 billion. Subsequently, the remaining $500 million would be split, with 49% ($245 million) going to Microsoft and 51% ($255 million) to OpenAI's nonprofit arm. This model, while providing OpenAI with immediate financial leverage, came with the obligation of a significant return to Microsoft, effectively placing them in a high-priority position for recouping funds.

The nature of this deal raised questions about its implications in the event of OpenAI's business challenges. If OpenAI were to face financial difficulties, the structure of the deal indicated that Microsoft would possess considerable protective rights, potentially including equity stakes in OpenAI, oversight on spending, or even influence over leadership decisions. Such safeguards for Microsoft underscore the dual nature of this investment: a substantial boost for OpenAI's blitzscaling efforts, yet with stringent conditions that could impact the company's autonomy and future direction, especially if the ambitious AI endeavors didn't materialize as planned.

Effective Altruism

In the weeks preceding Sam Altman's removal from OpenAI, a significant clash emerged, highlighting the tension between blitzscaling AI technology and prioritizing AI safety. This conflict came to the fore during a meeting between Altman and Helen Toner, a board member and co-author of a paper for Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Altman took issue with the paper, perceiving it as a critique of OpenAI's safety measures for AI technologies and unfairly favorable towards Anthropic's approach.

In an email Altman sent to his colleagues, which was later viewed by The New York Times, he expressed his disapproval of Toner's paper. He argued that the paper was harmful to OpenAI, especially considering an ongoing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into the data OpenAI used in its technology development. Toner, however, defended her work as an academic endeavor aimed at deciphering the intentions behind AI development by various countries and companies.

Altman's email highlighted a deep concern about the potential impact of criticism from a board member, indicating that it could carry significant weight and possibly harm the company's image or operations. This episode also brought to light a growing divide within OpenAI's leadership. Senior leaders, including Ilya Sutskever, who harbors a deep-seated fear of AI potentially leading to humanity's destruction, began to question whether Toner's presence on the board was aligned with the company's direction. This internal debate underscored the increasing prominence of effective altruism in the tech world, a philanthropic movement focusing on solving large-scale, potentially catastrophic global problems, including those related to AI safety and ethics. This rising movement was beginning to influence the strategic decisions and internal dynamics within leading AI organizations like OpenAI.

The influence of effective altruism within OpenAI's board dynamics became increasingly apparent in recent months. This philosophy, which advocates for using evidence-based methods to do the most good, gained prominence partly due to high-profile adherents like Sam Bankman-Fried, the FTX founder. However, Bankman-Fried's conviction in a fraud case cast a complex shadow over the movement. Despite this, the principles of effective altruism continued to resonate in the tech world, emphasizing a careful, ethical approach to global challenges, including those posed by AI technologies.

This shift was evident in the internal debates at OpenAI, particularly around Helen Toner's contributions. Toner, a former member of Open Philanthropy and a proponent of effective altruism, published a paper commending the safety practices of Anthropic, a rival AI firm. Her perspective, rooted in the cautious and ethical deployment of AI, starkly contrasted with OpenAI's more aggressive strategy with ChatGPT. This highlighted a growing tension within the company: the need to balance the rapid development and deployment of AI with the comprehensive safety and ethical considerations championed by effective altruism. This balancing act reflects a broader conversation in the tech industry about the responsible advancement of AI in the face of potentially far-reaching consequences.

The Repetition of the Evens

The situation at OpenAI, particularly surrounding the principles of effective altruism and the focus on AI safety, is reminiscent of a similar event that led to the formation of Anthropic. In 2019, a significant schism occurred within OpenAI, marked by the departure of key team members, including siblings Dario and Daniela Amodei, due to differences in the direction of AI research and development. Their exit from OpenAI was not a matter of expulsion but stemmed from a divergence in vision, especially following OpenAI's collaboration with Microsoft.

Dario Amodei, who held the position of Vice President of Research, and his sister Daniela Amodei, the Vice President of Safety and Policy at OpenAI, spearheaded this departure. They, along with other erstwhile senior OpenAI researchers, established Anthropic in 2021, driven by a desire to develop AI models that were more reliable, understandable, and aligned with ethical standards. This focus was born from a belief that OpenAI was not sufficiently addressing the challenges of AI mystery and alignment. Anthropic, positioning itself as a safety-centric AI research company, has since made notable progress in the field. Their approach and achievements underscore the foundational reasons for their split from OpenAI, illustrating a steadfast commitment to prioritizing the safety and alignment of AI systems – aspects they deemed as requiring more dedicated focus than they were receiving at OpenAI.

The scenario at Google in 2020 involving Timnit Gebru and her research paper "On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?" echoes the tensions at OpenAI and Anthropic. Gebru's paper, which scrutinized the environmental, financial, and ethical implications of large language models, raised significant concerns within Google. The paper emphasized the substantial computational resources required for such models, their potential to encode biases, and the risks associated with deploying AI technologies prematurely. This critical perspective, especially concerning biases and ethical implications, led to a discord with Google’s AI research approach.

Jeff Dean, head of AI at Google, responded to the situation by emphasizing the company's commitment to responsible AI research and diversity, equity, and inclusion. In an internal email, he outlined the circumstances of Gebru's departure, stating that her paper did not meet Google's publication standards. The email highlighted the lack of consideration for recent research in the paper, particularly in areas of environmental impact and bias mitigation. Gebru's subsequent conditions for her continued employment at Google, involving transparency in the paper review process, further escalated the situation, leading to her controversial exit.

This incident at Google underscores the inherent conflict in AI development between rapid technological advancement and the need for ethical, safe, and socially responsible research. Similar to the dynamics at OpenAI, this case reflects the challenges organizations face in aligning commercial AI pursuits with broader ethical considerations and community standards. It illustrates the complex interplay of internal governance, research direction, and external perceptions in leading AI research companies.

The Impact of Academic Paper Toward AI Public Policy

The potent impact of academic research on the technology industry is epitomized by the 2018 paper "Gender Shades" by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru. This seminal work, revealing biases in facial recognition technology against women and people of darker skin, significantly influenced major tech companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM. The paper's findings led to a broader public and industry reassessment of facial recognition technology, illustrating the substantial influence such research can have on corporate practices and policies.

Amazon's decision to impose a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology, IBM's discontinuation of its facial recognition offerings, and Microsoft's halt on selling such technology to police pending federal regulation, all stem from the revelations of this research. These developments underscore the power of scholarly work in shaping industry standards and practices. This scenario, reflecting a collective effort by researchers, civil liberties organizations, activists, and even corporate employees, highlights a turning point in the tech industry's approach to AI ethics and responsible deployment. Such a context helps us understand and sympathize with the challenges faced by entities like Google and OpenAI, where the intersection of cutting-edge technology and ethical, social responsibility is increasingly complex and influential.

Our Opinion

Since the schism over OpenAI boardroom stems from the understanding on the nuances and potential risks associated with Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) which requires a clear and precise definition of what AGI truly is. This foundation is crucial for accurately assessing potential dangers and devising appropriate strategies for mitigation or control. A pivotal resource in this regard is Google DeepMind's paper "Levels of AGI: Operationalizing Progress on the Path to AGI." This comprehensive document serves as a critical reference point, allowing us to understand AGI's capabilities and limitations accurately.

Furthermore, it is essential to make a clear distinction between AGI and the concept of machine sentience. While AGI refers to a machine's ability to understand, learn, and apply knowledge across a wide range of tasks, similar to human cognitive abilities, sentience implies self-awareness and consciousness, which is a far more complex and unattained characteristic in AI. This distinction is vital as it shapes our understanding of AI's nature and its implications. Intelligence in machines, as currently developed and envisioned, does not inherently include self-awareness or experiential understanding, contrary to what some speculative narratives might suggest.

Another significant aspect to consider is the potential misuse of AI technologies. The real and immediate dangers associated with AI are more likely to stem from their harmful application in society, such as the development of advanced weaponry or other detrimental uses. Addressing these risks requires an international, collaborative approach to regulation, focusing on ethical usage and control of AI technologies.

Lastly, there is an essential difference in causal inference between AI systems and humans. AI, especially through Large Language Models (LLMs), develops what could be termed 'indirect' or 'meta-' causal inferences based on data patterns derived from extensive training datasets. This process differs significantly from human causal inference, which involves direct environmental interaction through sensory experiences. Thus, equating AI's statistical or data-driven inferences with the nuanced, experiential-based cognitive processes of humans is inaccurate. AI's understanding of causality remains anchored in data patterns, devoid of the direct, experiential engagement with the world that characterizes human cognition.

In essence, while the advancements in AI and AGI are indeed groundbreaking, approaching these developments requires a balanced perspective that acknowledges their definitions, limitations, and the ethical and societal implications of their application. The conversation around AI should be grounded in realistic assessments of its current capabilities and mindful of the broader context of its deployment in our society.



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