I’m delighted that the crisis at OpenAI, which you can read about here, seems to have been resolved with an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return as CEO after his sudden firing last week. OpenAI has many well-meaning employees, who have worked hard to innovate in AI and bring its benefits to others. Everyone at OpenAI has my congratulations for getting to a resolution so quickly! The team deserves kudos especially for focusing on customers even through the turmoil.
One positive take-away is that employees have power. It can be hard to be part of a large team. But through ways large and small, people doing the work can influence events in important ways. OpenAI employees banded together to demand changes in the board, and one or two engineers at any company can raise a concern. Wherever you work, use your voice to make things better!
So what’s next?
I see both hopeful and worrisome impacts as OpenAI picks up the pieces:
- The team’s camaraderie through this episode has been inspiring. Strong alignment within the team could lead to increased effectiveness. That would be great for AI innovation, the company, and its customers and users.
- A few media outlets, notably The Information and Bloomberg, demonstrated a strong ability to get scoops about what was happening. Many are saying that OpenAI will face increased scrutiny in the future.
- Bret Taylor (who helped Twitter navigate its sale to Elon Musk) and Larry Summers (former United States Secretary of the Treasury and Harvard president) are strong additions to the board. OpenAI has a small but efficient lobbying team that has been highly influential on global AI regulation, and Summers’ background makes him a valuable addition to such efforts. I look forward to a more diverse board as its membership grows.
- In recent days, I heard from multiple businesses that are looking for alternatives to the OpenAI API to ensure their own continuity of operations. The quick resolution of the crisis has stemmed much of the damage, but the fact that some customers are looking at backup options will be hard to reverse.
- The failure of OpenAI’s unusual for-profit/nonprofit corporate structure is glaring. Investors and donors will be more hesitant to fund organizations with novel structures (which often come with passionate arguments — which fell apart in the case of OpenAI — about why they’re better). In most companies, board oversight over the CEO’s performance would be good governance, and for a fired CEO to rally employees against the board and get their job back would be a sign of awful governance. But OpenAI’s previous board nearly destroyed so much value, for no apparent reason, that I’m glad employees helped reverse the decision. The reconstituted board has its work cut out for it to put in place robust governance.
ChatGPT was released on November 30, 2022. It is amazing how much has happened at OpenAI — and in the AI world — in less than one year! Brief stretches of chaos may be the price of moving fast. Nonetheless, I think moving fast (but responsibly) is better than going slowly.
I hope all employees everywhere will come away from this episode feeling empowered to speak up and make things better. Let’s keep building AI, exercise wisdom and foresight, and learn what lessons we can about corporate governance. It’s probably too much to hope that there won't be additional bumps in the road ahead for AI, but I remain optimistic about all the good we can do.