March 2, 2024
OpenAI’s leadership coup could slam brakes on growth in favor of AI safety


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While a lot of details remain unknown about the exact reasons for the OpenAI board’s firing of CEO Sam Altman Friday, new facts have emerged that show co-founder Ilya Sutskever led the firing process, with support of the board.

While the board’s statement about the firing cited communication from Altman that “wasn’t consistently candid,” the exact reasons or timing of the board’s decision remain shrouded in mystery. But one thing is clear: Altman and co-founder Greg Brockman, who quit Friday after learning of Altman’s firing, were leaders of the company’s business side – doing the most to aggressively raise funds, expand OpenAI’s business offerings, and push its technology capabilities forward as quickly as possible.

Sutskever, meanwhile, led the company’s engineering side of the business, and has been obsessed by the coming ramifications of OpenAI’s generative AI technology, often talking in stark terms about what will happen when artificial general intelligence (AGI) is reached. He warned that technology will be so powerful that will put most people out of jobs.

As onlookers searched Friday evening for more clues about what exactly happened at OpenAI, the most common observation has been just how much Sutskever had come to lead a faction within OpenAI that was becoming increasingly panicked over the financial and expansion being pushed by Altman, and signs that Altman had crossed the line, and was no longer in compliance with OpenAI’s nonprofit mission. The drive for expansion resulted in a user spike after OpenAI’s Dev Day last that meant the company didn’t have enough server capacity for the research team, and that may have contributed to a frustration by Sutskever and others that Altman was not acting in alignment with the board. 

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If this is true, and the Sutskever-led takeover results in a company that hits the brakes on growth, and refocuses on safety, this could result in significant fallout amid the company’s employee base, which has been recruited with high salaries and expectations for growth. Indeed, three senior researchers at OpenAI resigned after the news Friday night, according to The Information.

Several sources have reported comments from an impromptu all-hands meeting following the firing, where Sutskever said some things that suggest he and some other safety-focused board members had hit the panic button in order to slow things down. According to The Information

You can call it this way,” Sutskever said about the coup allegation. “And I can understand why  you chose this word, but I disagree with this. This was the board doing its duty to the mission of the nonprofit, which is to make sure that OpenAI builds AGI that benefits all of humanity.” When Sutskever was asked whether “these backroom removals are a good way to govern the most important company in the world?” he answered: “I mean, fair, I agree that there is a  not ideal element to it. 100%.”

The OpenAI board consists of Sustskever, Quora founder Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, a director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Reporter Kara Swisher has reported that Sutskever and Toner were aligned in a split against Altman and Brockman, with the former perhaps gaining an upper hand because Brockman was not on the board. And the board and its mandate is highly unorthodox, we’ve reported, because it’s charged with deciding when AGI is achieved. The mandate had gotten increasing attention lately, and created controversy and uncertainty.

Friday night, many onlookers slapped together a timeline of events, including efforts by Altman and Brockman to raise more money at a lofty valuation of $90 billion, that all point to a very high likelihood that arguments broke out at the board level, with Sutskever and others concerned about the possible dangers posed by some recent breakthroughs by OpenAI that had pushed AI automation to increased levels. 

Indeed, Altman had confirmed that the company was working on GPT-5, the next stage of model performance for ChatGPT. And at the APEC conference last week in San Francisco, Altman referred to having recently seen more evidence of another step forward in the company’s technology : “Four times in the history of OpenAI––the most recent time was in the last couple of weeks––I’ve gotten to be in the room when we push the veil of ignorance back and the frontier of discovery forward. Getting to do that is the professional honor of a lifetime.” (See minute 3:15 of this video; hat-tip to Matt Mireles.)

Data scientist Jeremy Howard posted a long thread on X about how OpenAI’s DevDay was an embarrassment for researchers concerned about safety, and the aftermath was the last straw for Sutskever:

Also notable was that after the new GPT Builder was rolled out at DevDay, some on X/Twitter pointed out that you could retrieve information from it that seemed private or less than secure.

On the other hand, many tech leaders have come out in support of Altman, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, with some fearing that OpenAI’s board is torpedoing its reputation no matter what the reasons were for firing Altman.

Researcher Nirit Weiss-Blatt provided some good insight into Sutskever’s worldview in her post about comments he’d made recently in May:

“If you believe that AI will literally automate all jobs, literally, then it makes sense for a company that builds such technology to … not be an absolute profit maximizer. It’s relevant precisely because these things will happen at some point….If you believe that AI is going to, at minimum, unemploy everyone, that’s like, holy moly, right?

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