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'OpenAI Odyssey' a tale of power and principles

By Ken Ip | China Daily | Updated: 2023-11-24 07:24

FILE PHOTO: OpenAI logo is seen in this illustration taken, Feb 3, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

The whirlwind of recent events at OpenAI — the abrupt departure of co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, the resignation of Chairman Greg Brockman, the installation of interim CEO Mira Murati and the company doing a complete turnaround by announcing Altman's return with a new board — have transformed the organization's narrative into a gripping drama. This unfolding saga, reminiscent of a TV series, encapsulates power struggles, ethical quandaries, and the delicate balance between innovation and responsibility.

The ostensible reason behind Altman's initial dismissal was a loss of confidence from the board, as explicitly stated in the official announcement, citing a lack of faith in his leadership. The simultaneous ousting of Greg Brockman as the chairman added another layer of complexity to the narrative. In the midst of these seismic shifts, a tweet from Brockman himself expressed a mix of emotions, indicating a tumultuous journey since the inception of OpenAI eight years ago.

It's crucial to understand OpenAI's unique position in the tech landscape. Positioned as a non-profit organization, it holds the reins to cutting-edge research in generative AI, potentially shaping the future of AGI(Artificial General Intelligence). However, recent developments, including Altman's earlier termination, suggest a deviation from the ethos set by the organization's co-founder Elon Musk, who championed transparency and a non-profit approach. Musk's departure led Open-AI down a path of commercialization, closing the doors on the once-open research initiative.

Rumors and leaks from Reddit have painted a more intricate picture of why Altman was removed. It is alleged that Altman, driven by a desire for market dominance, had pushed for the premature release of a product without passing safety tests, betraying OpenAI's commitment to responsible and ethical AI development. The introduction of the GPT Store and profit-sharing mechanisms acted as the final straw, drawing parallels with existing technologies like Poe.

The question that lingers is whether these events were rooted in power struggles, business disputes, or a clash of principles. The ambiguity surrounding the motivations behind Altman's removal had left room for speculation.

According to Greg Brockman's account on X (formerly Twitter), a meeting was convened last Friday, where all board members, including Altman and Brockman, were present. Altman received a message from Ilya Sutskever, leading to an impromptu Google Meet. The aftermath saw Brockman being removed from the board but retaining his position within OpenAI. The swift and clandestine nature of these actions raised questions about the motivations and the orchestration behind the scenes.

The composition of OpenAI's earlier board, which included non-employees like Adam D'Angelo, Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner, revealed a diverse array of backgrounds. D'Angelo, known for his association with Quora and Poe, stood out as a figure potentially involved in the recent upheaval. McCauley, with an MBA and connections to Hollywood through her husband, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, added another layer of intrigue. Toner, with a background in chemical engineering and security studies, brought an academic perspective to the board.

The interim appointment of Mira Murati as the "acting CEO" had raised eyebrows too. As a former CTO and not a board member, her role in the ongoing power dynamics remained uncertain. The swiftness of the changes and the pressure from investors, including Microsoft, indicated a potential short-lived tenure for Murati as she navigated a delicate balance between supporting Altman's return and reshaping the board.

This might be dubbed the shortest corporate coup in history. Reports had circulated that investors, led by Microsoft, were pressuring for Altman's reinstatement. Altman had outlined a condition for his return — a complete dissolution and reconstitution of the board, echoing a tactic once employed by Steve Jobs upon his return to Apple.

According to a report in the CNN on Thursday, Microsoft and Altman appear to be the big winners from the dust-up: Altman will continue leading the firm he helped to found, now with a board that is, in theory, more supportive of his vision. And Microsoft has wrested more control over the company it invested billions in to help bolster its ambitions in developing AI.

In his own post on X, Altman wrote that he is "looking forward" to returning to OpenAI and building on the firm's "strong partnership" with Microsoft. Brockman, too, is returning to OpenAI, according to his post on X.

Ahead of the reinstatement, key OpenAI figures were resigning en masse, pledging allegiance to Altman. The head of Safety Systems, Lilian Weng, said that nearly 85 percent of OpenAI's workforce has signed a resignation petition, demanding the dissolution of the current board to facilitate Altman's return.

Earlier, the announcement by Microsoft's Satya Nadella that Altman and Brockman might lead a new AI department within Microsoft had added a surreal twist to the saga.

In this tumultuous "intelligence rebellion", as Altman aptly termed it, the dynamics were shifting rapidly. The reshuffling of the board, potential mergers with competitors like Anthropic, and the exodus of key personnel created an air of uncertainty.

In the grand tapestry of corporate dramas, OpenAI's saga stands out as a riveting narrative of power, principles, and the relentless pursuit of technological excellence. The public are eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the Open-AI odyssey.

The author is chairman of the Asia MarTech Society and sits on the advisory boards of several professional organizations, including two universities. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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