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The OpenAI-Sam Altman drama: Why should you care?

The OpenAI-Sam Altman drama: Why should you care?
The OpenAI-Sam Altman drama: Why should you care? | GZERO AI | GZERO Media

Taylor Owen, professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and director of its Centre for Media, Technology & Democracy, co-hosts GZERO AI, our new weekly video series intended to help you keep up and make sense of the latest news on the AI revolution. In this episode of the series, Taylor Owen takes a look at the OpenAI-Sam Altman drama.

Hi, I'm Taylor Owen. This is GZERO AI. So if you're watching this video, then like me, you're probably glued to your screen over the past week, watching the psychodrama play out at OpenAI, a company literally at the center of the current AI moment we're in.


Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, was kicked out of his company by his own board of directors. Under a week later, he was back as CEO, and all but one of those board members was gone. All of this would be amusing, and it certainly was in a glib sort of way, if the consequences weren't so profound. I've been thinking a lot about how to make sense of all this, and I keep coming back to this profound sense of deja vu.

First, though, a quick recap. We don't know all of the details, but it really does seem to be the case that at the core of this conflict was a tension between two different views of what OpenAI was and will be in the future. Remember, OpenAI was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit, and a nonprofit because it was choosing a mission of building technologies to benefit all of humanity over a private corporate mission of increasing value for shareholders. When they started running out of money, though, a couple of years later, they embedded a for-profit entity within this nonprofit structure so that they could capitalize on the commercial value of the products that the nonprofit was building. This is where the tension lied, between the incentives of a for-profit engine and the values and mission of a nonprofit board structure.

All of this can seem really new. OpenAI was building legitimately groundbreaking technologies, technologies that could transform our world. But I think the problem and the wider problem here is not a new one. This is where I was getting deja vu. Back in the early days of Web 2.0, there was also a huge amount of excitement over a new disruptive technology. In this case, the power of social media. In some ways, events like the Arab Spring were very similar to the emergence of ChatGPT, a seismic of event that demonstrated to broader society the power of an emerging technology.

Now I spent the last 15 years studying the emergence of social media, and in particular how we as societies can balance the immense benefits and upside of these technologies with also the clear downside risks as they emerged. I actually think we got a lot of that balance wrong. It's times like this when a new technology emerges that we need to think carefully about what lessons we can learn from the past. I want to highlight three.

First, we need to be really clear-eyed about who has power in the technological infrastructure we're deploying. In the case of OpenAI, it seems very clear that the profit incentives won over the more broader social mandate. Power is also, though, who controls infrastructure. In this case, Microsoft played a big role. They controlled the compute infrastructure, and they wielded this power to come out on top in this turmoil.

Second, we need to bring the public into this discussion. Ultimately, a technology will only be successful if it has legitimate citizen buy-in, if it has a social license. What are citizens supposed to think when they hear the very people building these technologies disagreeing over their consequences? Ilya Sutskever, for example, said just a month ago, "If you value intelligence over all human qualities, you're going to have a bad time," when talking about the future of AI. This kind of comment coming from the very people that are building the technologies is just exacerbating an already deep insecurity many people feel about the future. Citizens need to be allowed and be enabled and empowered to weigh into the conversation about the technologies that are being built on their behalf.

Finally, we simply need to get the governance right this time. We didn't last time. For over 20 years, we've largely left the social web unregulated, and it's had disastrous consequences. This means not being confused by technical or systemic complexity masking lobbying efforts. It means applying existing laws and regulations first ... In the case of AI, things like copyright, online safety rules, data privacy rules, competition policy ... before we get too bogged down in big, large-scale AI governance initiatives. We just can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to iterate, experiment, and countries need to learn from each other in how they step into this complex new world of AI governance.

Unfortunately, I worry we're repeating some of the same mistakes of the past. Once again, we're moving fast and we're breaking things. If the new board of OpenAI is any indication about how they're thinking about governance and how the AI world in general values and thinks about governance, there's even more to worry about. Three white men calling the shots at a tech company that could very well transform our world. We've been here before, and it doesn't end well. Our failure to adequately regulate social media had huge consequence. While the upside of AI is undeniable, it's looking like we're making many of the same mistakes, only this time the consequences could be even more dire.

I'm Taylor Owen, and thanks for watching.

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