On a Monday morning in April, Sam Altman sat inside OpenAI’s San Francisco headquarters, telling me about a dangerous artificial intelligence that his company had built but would never release. His employees, he later said, often lose sleep worrying about the AIs they might one day release without fully appreciating their dangers. With his heel perched on the edge of his swivel chair, he looked relaxed. The powerful AI that his company had released in November had captured the world’s imagination like nothing in tech’s recent history. There was grousing in some quarters about the things ChatGPT could not yet do well, and in others about the future it may portend, but Altman wasn’t sweating it; this was, for him, a moment of triumph.
In small doses, Altman’s large blue eyes emit a beam of earnest intellectual attention, and he seems to understand that, in large doses, their intensity might unsettle. In this case, he was willing to chance it: He wanted me to know that whatever AI’s ultimate risks turn out to be, he has zero regrets about letting ChatGPT loose into the world. To the contrary, he believes it was a great public service.
“We could have gone off and just built this in our building here for five more years,” he said, “and we would have had something jaw-dropping.” But the public wouldn’t have been able to prepare for the shock waves that followed, an outcome that he finds “deeply unpleasant to imagine.” Altman believes that people need time to reckon with the idea that we may soon share Earth with a powerful new intelligence, before it remakes everything from work to human relationships. ChatGPT was a way of serving notice.
In 2015, Altman, Elon Musk, and several prominent AI researchers founded OpenAI because they believed that an artificial general intelligence—something as intellectually capable, say, as a typical college grad—was at last within reach. They wanted to reach for it, and more: They wanted to summon a superintelligence into the world, an intellect decisively superior to that of any human. And whereas a big tech company might recklessly rush to get there first, for its own ends, they wanted to do it safely, “to benefit humanity as a whole.” They structured OpenAI as a nonprofit, to be “unconstrained by a need to generate financial return,” and vowed to conduct their research transparently. There would be no retreat to a top-secret lab in the New Mexico desert.
For years, the public didn’t hear much about OpenAI. When Altman became CEO in 2019, reportedly after a power struggle with Musk, it was barely a story. OpenAI published papers, including one that same year about a new AI. That got the full attention of the Silicon Valley tech community, but the technology’s potential was not apparent to the general public until last year, when people began to play with ChatGPT. [Continue reading…]
Earlier this year, I asked Sam Altman whether decisions made by OpenAI’s leaders might one day lead to unemployment among the masses. “Jobs are definitely going to go away, full stop,” he told me. He couldn’t have known then that his would be among the first. In a blog post released this afternoon, OpenAI—the artificial-intelligence juggernaut for which Altman was the CEO—announced that he would be leaving, effective immediately, because, according to the statement, “he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
The statement did not specify the nature of Altman’s alleged misrepresentations, but they must have concerned serious matters to merit such a dramatic and public rebuke. Altman did not reply to multiple texts seeking comment, but in a post on X (formerly Twitter), he said that he’d loved his time at OpenAI, and that it was transformative for him “personally, and hopefully for the world a little bit.”
The suddenness of this announcement, and the Icarus-like fall it represents for Altman, is difficult to overstate. In 2015, Altman convened a now-famous dinner at the Rosewood Sand Hill, in Menlo Park, California, with Elon Musk and a small group of others, at which they agreed to found OpenAI. Various tech luminaries committed $1 billion to the company, including Musk, who agreed to co-chair its board with Altman. Their partnership lasted only until 2018, when Musk made a play to become the company’s CEO, as reported by Semafor. Altman led the resistance and, a year later, assumed the CEO title for himself. [Continue reading…]