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The SEC Newgate AI Weekly

AI Concept
23 November 2023
Digital and Insight
artificial intelligence

You come at the King, you best not miss

Omar Little  

Just like that, after four days in exile, Sam Altman has been reinstated as CEO of OpenAI. While the likes of Elon Musk on the one hand are congratulating OpenAI on a good marketing stunt, others are worried about what this means for the future of AI.  

Unpacking why a board that is supposed to be unique in its non-profit purpose to safeguard humanity feel compelled to oust the CEO in the first place is troubling. What was so worrying that the head of the company had to go? And more importantly, what does his sudden return to the CEO seat signify?  

A recent Vox article delves into the inherent double-edged sword of OpenAI’s mission. First and foremost, the original non-for-profit now capped profit company purpose is to develop a technology that may surpass human intelligence. Yet it should still be safe and of benefit to all of humanity.  

The organisation, originally established as a non-profit, has now evolved into a profit-capped company with the ambitious goal of developing technology that may surpass human intelligence. Balancing the pursuit of cutting-edge technology and ensuring it remains safe for humanity is no easy feat, especially given the rapid pace of public releases. This legitimises the need for a board that steadfastly adheres to the company's original mission

The exact reason for the firing of Altman is still unclear, however some suggest it may be in regard to a potential breakthrough in AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) that was briefly alluded to during an APEC CEO summit last week. Altman ambiguously stated: 

“Four times now in the history of OpenAI, the most recent time was just in the last couple weeks, I've gotten to be in the room, when we sort of push the veil of ignorance back and the frontier of discovery forward, and getting to do that is the professional honour of a lifetime." 

While this comment mostly went unnoticed during the meeting, commentators have now suggested that it implied OpenAI may have unlocked a system so advanced that it essentially triggered ‘safety concerns amongst staff at the company,’ reported the Guardian. Staff at OpenAI penned a letter to the board with a warning on the potential discovery, reports Reuters. A day later Altman was out of a job.  

The advancement that potentially had the board worried is called ‘Q*’ and is reported to be able to “surpass humans in most economically valuable tasks,” essentially giving AGI life said Reuters. If true, this validates the board decision to make a drastic move if it meant halting the pace of development because it was compromising safety.  

And yet, after being offered the role of CEO at Microsoft’s research lab, Altman has now been reinstated as OpenAI’s CEO. And why? Because the alternative of having to hire and train 700 new staff after 95% of staff threatened to quit seemed like a worser case scenario reports Vox. Especially considering Microsoft removed its ‘AI ethics’ team earlier in the year as reported in the Verge.  

So where does that leave us – an old CEO with a new board…and Sam Altman in a more powerful position than ever.  

To finish on a quote of the week by James Surowiecki:  

This whole OpenAI circus definitely makes you think that leaving the possible fate of humanity (at least according to AI gurus) up to a small number of companies run by geeks in their 30s might not be a great idea.