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The dramatic firing and rehiring of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman sent shock waves through the world of technology this week. It is sure to go down in Silicon Valley history as one of the most perplexing corporate dramas at a major company.
From the moment the firing was announced, nobody could understand how it could have happened, unless there was a massive scandal hidden below the surface. After all, Altman was the chief executive of the hottest tech startup of the last decade — a startup that didn’t merely launch the profoundly popular product ChatGPT; it kicked off a computing revolution and positioned itself as the undisputed leader.
With sparse information coming out of Open AI, there’s been endless speculation about the “real reasons” behind the firing. They range from petty personality conflicts to a rumor reported by Reuters that researchers warned of a new and dangerous AI breakthrough.
None of these quite add up, so I’d like to add my own crazy theory to the list. I’ll admit, it’s not likely to be provable or disprovable, but feels worth adding to the conversation. As background, I’ve been the CEO of both private and public technology companies throughout my career. I know full well that it’s the responsibility of the board of directors to ensure that management performs up to their expectations and abides by the ideals of the organization.
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As someone who believes strongly that tech companies should slow their development of AI to ensure safe and responsible progress, it would be easy for me to assume the Altman firing was due to reckless behavior on this front. But such a firing would not have been so abrupt and would have been announced with a clear explanation. No, a firing this abrupt and cagey suggests a massive scandal, but the company has stated no transgression occurred.
A binge-watching board?
So, what could drive a group of rational board members to take this extreme action and so gravely miscalculate the fallout? After all, Sam Altman is being restored as CEO and it’s the board that is being reconstituted with “more experienced” business leaders. I have no inside knowledge of what went down at OpenAI, but from the moment I heard the news of this firing, the first thing that popped into my mind was that the directors were under the influence of a very powerful force.
No, I’m not talking about pressure from a foreign government or federal regulators. I’m talking about the influence of a well performed and well written miniseries called Super Pumped about the firing of UBER’s controversial CEO, Travis Kalanick, by a board that was convinced he was out of control.
The series came out in 2022 but wasn’t distributed free on Netflix until just last month. Thus, my naïve assumption was that members of the OpenAI board must have just watched Super Pumped and got so wrapped up in the high-stakes drama of governing a technology company, they blurred fiction with reality and took the bold (if not crazy) step of sacking the most high-profile CEO in the world of AI.
Then, as I looked into this issue, I noticed that one of OpenAI’s board members is the wife of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the star of Super Pumped. Maybe this is an example of “confirmation bias” on my part, but I have to assume she didn’t just watch the mini-series, she lived it through her husband. In fact, I could even imagine that members of the board would be invited to the premiere or other events related to this Silicon Valley tale.
Art imitating life imitating art
Could this all be a coincidence?
Maybe, but I am now left with a burning question: Was Sam Altman Super Pumped? By this I mean, was he fired by an inexperienced board that was influenced by a dramatic retelling of the highest profile firing of a tech CEO of the last decade?
Whether the impact was subconscious or more direct we may never know, but I am convinced this firing was inspired, at least in part, by a well-produced TV miniseries. I know that sounds like a hallucination worthy of ChatGPT, but I’ve not heard a better explanation from anyone, especially not OpenAI.
The good news is that OpenAI’s dramatic week (worthy of its own miniseries) has resulted in more experienced directors being added to the board. The big question now is whether these new board members fully appreciate the responsibility of overseeing a company that is pursuing artificial superintelligence as its overarching mission. If they don’t seek comprehensive outside guidance from AI experts who don’t work at OpenAI, they could be fooled into believing the risks are not as significant as they really are.
So, to the new board of OpenAI: Please appreciate that despite having good intentions, your company is developing technologies that could damage or even destabilize society without the proper controls. It is your responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Louis Rosenberg founded Immersion Corporation and Unanimous AI and developed the first mixed reality system at Air Force Research Laboratory. His new book, Our Next Reality, comes out early next year.
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