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Ethics in AI – What Happened With Sam Altman and OpenAI

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On November 17th, 2023, OpenAI’s board of directors fired the company’s CEO, Sam Altman. The move came seemingly out of the blue, even to senior management within the company.

Shortly after the news of Altmans’s firing broke, co-founder and President Greg Brockman announced his departure. A leaked internal memo reflected the unexpected decision. This memo cited concerns about leadership direction and strategic misalignment on ethics in AI.

As a co-founder, Altman became infamous for raising OpenAI’s profile and his fundraising prowess. Altman described his firing as a “weird experience.” Further likening his firing to “reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive.” Notably, he also held no equity in OpenAI and could be terminated at any time.

The sudden change has sparked widespread industry speculation. Thus, leaving both employees and external observers questioning the future of OpenAI in real-time.

As a company, United States-based OpenAI is no stranger to a series of high-profile leaders. Previously, Elon Musk co-chaired the company. And, in 2020, other executives exited to found Anthropic, a competitor focusing on AI safety.

OpenAI is the industry leader for Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools, machine learning models, and AI computer programs. These tools focus on text generation, image generation, and other generated content. The company’s recent success, particularly with the release of ChatGPT, had brought Altman into the limelight. Thus, making his firing a significant event in the tech industry, not just in generative AI, but in computer vision, data science, and beyond.

 

OpenAI co-founders Greg Brockman and Sam Altman are behind Dall-E 2 and ChaptGPT, some of the most widely adopted language tools in the AI ever.
OpenAI co-founders Greg Brockman and Sam Altman have left and rejoined the company in the past week – source.

 

Altman’s Ouster and Brockman’s Resignation – A Brief Overview

November 17th
  • Altman Out. The OpenAI board announced that Altman would be stepping down from his position as CEO. They decided on this “leadership transition” after losing confidence in Altman’s ability to lead the company. The board released a resounding statement that he was not “consistently candid in his communications.”
  • Brockman Out. Shortly after, Brockman announced that he too would be parting ways with OpenAI. Effectively resigning from his position as company president. Following Brockman, three more executives also stepped down from their positions.
  • A Board Review. A review process conducted by the board concluded that Altman’s direction hindered the board’s ability to exercise its responsibilities. However, at the time, the company or its board did not elaborate further on the reasons for Altman’s departure.
  • A New CEO. Following Altman’s firing, the OpenAI board appointed Chief Technology Officer, Mira Murati, as the interim CEO. Murati has been with OpenAI since 2018 and has played a pivotal role in major product launches, such as Dall-E 2 and ChatGPT. These tools use the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT), OpenAI’s state-of-the-art language Large Language Model (LLM).

 

November 19th
  • Tensions Rise. Altman met with top leadership and the OpenAI board to negotiate his return. Notably, Altman posted a selfie on X wearing an OpenAI guest badge. The post stated that this would be the first and last time Altman would wear an OpenAI guest badge.
  • Another New CEO. Emmett Shear, a former Head at Twitch, stepped into the position of acting CEO, replacing Murati.
  • Microsoft’s Influence. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, reportedly began eyeing a position on the OpenAI board. While Microsoft and OpenAI’s partnership was strong, they did previously not hold a board position.

 

 

November 20th
  • A Threat of Mass Resignations. Penning a letter to the board, more than 650 of OpenAI’s 770 employees threatened to resign. That is, of course, if Altman did not resume his CEO position.
  • Nadella’s Chess Move. Nadella announced that Altman and Brockman would head a new AI research team at Microsoft. Nadella also mentioned that the door at Microsoft would remain open to any OpenAI employees looking to jump ship.
  • Sutskever’s Backtrack. Stunningly, Sutskever reversed his position toward Altman and stated his regret over firing him. Sutskever then mentioned that he would do everything in his power to bring Altman back on.

 

November 21st
  • Altman and Brockman Return. OpenAI, Altman, and Brockman reached an agreement for the former CEO and President to return.
  • A New Board. Upon the duo’s return, OpenAI also brought on a new board. This new board included former Salesforce co-CEO, Bret Taylor, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers. Adam D’Angelo, a member of the original board that had dismissed Altman, retained his board position.
  • Old Members, Out. Of the original six board members, Sutskever, Toner, and McCauley were out.
  • An Internal Investigation. According to reports, a key condition of Altman’s return was an internal investigation into his dismissal.

 

November 29th

OpenAI finalized the return of both Altman and Brockman. Additionally, Microsoft gained a position on the board of a non-voting observer. At this time, it is not immediately clear who the Microsoft board representative will be.

This seismic shakeup suggests a potential new direction for OpenAI. How can the company balance concerns about AI with its potential for commercialization?

 

Why Was Sam Altman Fired From OpenAI?

While the original board provided a limited explanation for Altman’s dismissal, they did touch on three main points:

  1. An alleged lack of honesty by the board.
  2. An aversion to ethics in AI and deep learning in the face of rapid innovation and AI research.
  3. The need to protect OpenAI’s mission of developing AI for the benefit of humanity.

Sam Altman himself was fairly vague when asked about the subject in the days following his surprising dismissal. This combined with his rapid reinstatement is fueling speculation regarding why the board dismissed him in the first place. Since the fiasco, pundits and prominent voices in the Generative AI field have proposed a wide range of theories:

 

Circumvention of the Board in a Major Deal

Altman’s not being “consistently candid” hints at possible secret negotiations or decisions made without the board’s knowledge or approval. Some have speculated that there was a deal with Microsoft, OpenAI’s major investor and customer. This would potentially concern OpenAI’s independence or deeper integration with the tech giant. Board member and ex-CTO Sutskever has been somewhat candid about his belief that Altman has not always been honest with the board.

 

Disagreement on Long-Term Strategy

Despite OpenAI’s explosive growth and success, there could have been fundamental disagreements between Altman and the board. These disagreements may have involved the company’s long-term strategy, particularly balancing growth with financial stability. In particular, Altman’s push to pursue a more commercialized route seems to have been a point of contention.

What’s clear is that tensions have been brewing at the top levels of OpenAI for at least a year. According to reports, Altman himself tried to push out a board member, Helen Toner. This resulted from a paper she co-wrote, deemed critical of the company.

 

The homepage of ChatGPT, OpenAI's chatbot tool built with GPT.
OpenAI’s ChatGPT achieved monumental success as one of the first widely adopted generative AI tools – source.

 

Financial Concerns

Speculation also includes the possibility of financial discrepancies or undisclosed high-cost internal projects led by Altman. Although OpenAI has been growing, the operation costs are unprecedented, raising questions about financial management and transparency.

 

Security or Privacy Incident

A significant security or privacy breach was speculated at OpenAI, especially concerning ChatGPT. If such an incident had occurred and been downplayed by Altman, it would have majorly impacted the board’s trust in his leadership. Any potential security incident involving OpenAI could have major consequences, considering the massive amount of personal data their machine learning algorithms process.

 

Differences in AI Ethics or Philosophy

Altman’s vision for AI may have clashed with the board. Particularly, his optimism about the rapid development and deployment of AI systems. This optimism may have contrasted with the board’s views on safety and ethical considerations. This includes debates over the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and the potential risks to humanity.

“OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity.” A statement from the board that seemingly supports an ethics-focused outlook.

 

Ethics in AI – What Does This Mean Going Forward?

Any significant event at OpenAI was bound to have a ripple effect on the entire industry. Regardless of the impetus, ethical differences between Altman and the board had a role to play in his firing.

And, even minute variations in outlooks between individuals can snowball into glaring, irreconcilable differences in the face of unprecedented growth and innovation. These are not dissimilar to what OpenAI has experienced in the last year.

For example, OpenAI co-founder Elon Musk has frequently expressed severe concerns about the ethical considerations and risks associated with artificial intelligence (AI). Especially risks with artificial general intelligence (AGI). His viewpoints highlight the profound implications generative AI could have on humanity and civilization.

 

Elon Musk, co-founder of OpenAI, who has been vocal on the topics of ethics in AI.
Elon Musk is an outspoken voice calling for more oversight of the advancements in artificial intelligence.

 

Ethics in AI Lessons for Budding Companies

  • Lesson #1: Prioritize Stakeholders’ Demands for Transparency and Accountability
  • Lesson #2: Balance Employee Influence and Corporate Governance
  • Lesson #3: Manage the Safety and Speed of AI Development
  • Lesson #4: Navigate Partnerships and Influence of Major Investors
  • Lesson #5: Focus on Mission Versus the Potential for Profit
  • Lesson #6: Weigh the Impact of AI Policy and Regulation
  • Lesson #7: Study Public Perception and Trust

 

Lesson No.1: Prioritize Stakeholders’ Demands for Transparency and Accountability

While we’ve learned much since November 17th, there are still major details missing about Altman’s initial dismissal and return. These points highlight a pressing need for greater transparency and accountability in AI organizations.

Going forward, stakeholders, including developers, investors, and the public, will likely demand more openness from AI companies. This demand for transparency is crucial for maintaining trust, especially when the technology developed has far-reaching societal impacts.

 

Lesson No.2: Balance Employee Influence and Corporate Governance

The swift response from OpenAI employees underscores the growing influence of AI practitioners in corporate governance. This development signals a shift towards more democratic and employee-inclusive decision-making in tech companies.

In part, this reaction comes from the fact that employees were surprised at the sudden shift within their own company. In the future, those with knowledge of the technology will understand the ethical considerations in AI development. These individuals will be the advocates for responsible and cautious approaches.

 

Lesson No.3: Manage the Safety and Speed of AI Development

One speculated reason for Altman’s firing was a disagreement over the pace of AI deployment and its safety implications. This incident has highlighted the ethical dilemma of balancing innovation speed with safety and societal impact.

In the future, we foresee more rigorous debates and possibly regulatory interventions. These may focus on the safe and ethical deployment of generative AI technologies.

 

Lesson No.4: Navigate Partnerships and Influence of Major Investors

We must consider the role of Microsoft as a major stakeholder in the OpenAI and Altmen saga. This relationship raises questions about the influence of large tech companies. Thus, their ability shapes the direction of AI ethics.

The future of generative AI ethics could see more involvement or scrutiny of such partnerships. This could ensure that commercial interests do not overshadow ethical considerations.

 

Lesson No.5: Focus on Mission Versus the Potential for Profit

Altman’s reinstatement, coupled with his vision for OpenAI, might lead to a stronger emphasis on profitability. This development could spark a broader debate on the balance between ethical principles and the pressures of commercial success. How generative AI companies reconcile these two aspects will be crucial in setting ethical standards.

 

Lesson No.6: Weigh the Impact of AI Policy and Regulation

The Altman saga may influence how lawmakers and regulatory bodies view the governance and ethical implications of AI. This could potentially play out with more stringent regulations and oversight mechanisms. Thus, ensuring that AI development aligns with societal values and safety standards.

 

Lesson No.7: Study Public Perception and Trust

Finally, management of such high-profile incidents will affect the public’s trust in AI technologies. With closer monitoring of AI companies, we may see an impact on the broader acceptance of AI technologies. Building public trust will require ethical leadership and a commitment to responsible AI development.

 

How Will Regulations Shape Ethics in Generative AI?

The recent events surrounding Sam Altman at OpenAI are not just a corporate saga. These events are an indication of how generative AI could face future regulations. Here’s our prediction of how authorities and regulators may approach the oversight of AI technologies in its aftermath:

 

1. Stricter Oversight and Governance Standards

The events surrounding Altman’s ouster and reinstatement underscore the need for enhanced governance standards and ethics in AI. In the European Union, lawmakers are finalizing potentially the world’s first comprehensive AI regulations, the EU AI Act.

These include contentious areas like commercialized LLMs underpinning systems like OpenAI’s NLP engine ChatGPT. The EU’s approach has evolved from specific uses of AI to foundational models. This change reflects a growing recognition of the need for robust regulatory frameworks addressing all aspects of generative AI.

 

Th European Union has proposed the AI Act in attempts to regulate the rapid innovation of the machine learning ltechnology.
The European Union’s proposed “AI Act,” aims to classify AI applications based on their propensity to cause harm.

 

President Biden also recently signed an executive order aimed at regulating AI development. This order requires companies to disclose large AI models like GPT-5 for government oversight. It focuses on national security, equity, consumer protection, and setting federal guidelines for AI use. The order also seeks to attract AI talent and addresses AI’s potential misuse, balancing innovation with responsible development.

 

2. Focus on Ethical AI Development

The implications of AI, brought into focus by the Altman saga, will likely prompt lawmakers to emphasize ethics. This could lead to the establishment of ethical guidelines and frameworks that AI companies must adhere to. These guidelines may encompass fairness, privacy, data security, and the prevention of AI misuse.

 

3. Safety and Speed of AI Development:

One speculated reason for Altman’s firing was a disagreement over the pace of AI deployment and its safety implications. This incident has highlighted the ethical dilemma of balancing innovation speed with safety and societal impact.

In the future, there will likely be more rigorous debates and possibly regulatory interventions. These may focus on the safe and ethical deployment of generative AI technologies. An example is the rapidly developing computer vision AI technology in self-driving cars.

 

4. Regulatory Scrutiny of Investor Influence

Microsoft’s involvement in the OpenAI dynamics underscores the need for regulatory scrutiny of investor influence in AI companies. Regulations may evolve to address potential conflicts of interest. Additionally ensuring that investor actions do not compromise AI’s ethical integrity and safety.

 

5. Accelerated Development of AI-Specific Laws

The attention drawn by the Altman case will likely accelerate the development and implementation of AI-specific regulatory measures. Governments may move to establish legal frameworks addressing the unique challenges posed by AI. These could include liability issues, intellectual property, and the ethical deployment of AI.

 

6. International Collaboration on AI Governance

The international impact of generative AI, as highlighted by OpenAI’s global influence, will encourage cross-border regulatory collaborations. International bodies and governments may collaborate to develop harmonized standards and guidelines for AI development and use, ensuring consistent and effective regulation across borders.

 

The OpenAI Aftermath

The world of AI is still grappling with what this shakeup means. However, we can undoubtedly expect changes in the public’s perception of tech innovation and industry oversight. As OpenAI continues to release powerful players in the world of AI, such as Sora, it will be interesting to see how the tech titan navigates regulatory waters.

Stay up to date with the latest news and trends in AI by following the Viso blog. We encourage you to check out other topics that may be of interest:

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