“OpenAI is nothing without its people.” The phrase, almost a warning, is from Mira Murati, the chief technology officer of the artificial intelligence firm who was named Sam Altman’s provisional replacement after his dismissal as CEO. Murati, like the vast majority of employees, ended up rebelling against the decision and threatened to leave. Microsoft, which has signed Altman and former OpenAI president Greg Brockman, has made it clear that it has room for everyone. Meanwhile, the firm that has popularized artificial intelligence has been left in the hands of three independents: Adam D’Angelo, Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner.
These three independents are the ones who have refused to reinstate Altman after the rebellion of investors and employees. They have named Emmett Shear, who was head of Twitch, as his replacement. In its statement on Friday, OpenAI anticipated a “smooth transition.” Nothing further. It is also not clear that these advisors care much. According to the letter that the employees have sent to the board asking for their resignation, these independents conveyed to the directors that allowing the destruction of the company could be consistent with its mission in favor of humanity. And, in fact, they have hired a new boss who is in favor of stopping the development of artificial intelligence.
Until last week, OpenAI’s board consisted of six members: Sam Altman, CEO; Greg Brockman, board president; Ilya Sutskever, chief scientist, and the three independents mentioned. Altman, Brockman and Sutskever are members of the founding team and from the beginning the dismissals were interpreted as a coup by Sutskever with the support of the independents.
However, Sutskever has shown his regret: “I deeply regret my participation in the council’s actions. It was never my intention to harm OpenAI. I love everything we have built together and I will do everything I can to bring the company together,” he tweeted this Monday. His message comes after hours of failed negotiations for Altman’s return, amid pressure from employees and investors. Altman was at the OpenAI headquarters on Sunday, but there was no agreement. Microsoft immediately signed him and Brockman and made it clear that they were willing to bring in the rest of the team.
With Sutskever repentant, it is the three independent directors who have not wanted to back down. Their positions are unpaid. They are not shareholders and as the board has been reduced due to previous resignations and last week’s layoffs, they have found that they have control of OpenAI. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that “OpenAI is nothing without its people”, but it is certainly no longer what it was.
The three independents
The best known of the three independents is perhaps Adam D’Angelo, 39 years old. A brilliant computer programmer, he was Facebook’s chief technology officer and also its vice president of engineering until 2008. In June 2009, at the age of 25, he founded the question-and-answer social network Quora with another Facebook employee, Charlie Cheever. D’Angelo has been the CEO since its founding. The company is not listed on the Stock Exchange, its business model has not worked very well there and its valuation is uncertain.
It is not easy to calculate his fortune either. D’Angelo does not appear on the main lists of billionaires, several publications have estimated his fortune above that figure. He has been on the board of OpenAI since April 2018. He has always defended that OpenAI should not become one of the big technology companies, but rather maintain its structure as a non-profit organization. He has not felt compelled to resign due to a possible conflict of interest despite the fact that the development of artificial intelligence can leave a social network like Quora without much meaning.
Tasha McCauley, 42, is known partly as an engineer and entrepreneur, but also as the wife of American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She studied electrical engineering at Stanford University and earned a master’s degree in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. A co-founder of Fellow Robots, she ran GeoSim Systems, a company that develops software for the robotics sector, and this year she joined Rand Corporation, an analytics and consulting firm focused on public policy. She met Gordon-Levitt in 2009 and they married in 2014. They have two children.
McCauley sits on the advisory board of the Center for the Governance of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Oxford, as does the third independent director, Helen Toner. McCauley is also linked to the effective altruism movement, with a utilitarian and philanthropic orientation. Specifically, she is part of the British branch of Effective Ventures, parent company of the Center for Effective Altruism. The fallen Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of the cryptocurrency platform FTX and recently found guilty of several crimes, belonged to that movement.
OpenAI’s third independent director, Helen Toner, 33, is director of Strategy and Foundational Research Grants at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies (CSET). Before joining the center, she lived in Beijing, where she studied the Chinese artificial intelligence ecosystem as a researcher at the Center for AI Governance at the University of Oxford. Previously, she worked as a senior research analyst at Open Philanthropy, where she advised policymakers and donors on artificial intelligence policy and strategy. She has a Master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and a Diploma in Languages from the University of Melbourne. She joined the OpenAI board in September 2021.
In an article published in July 2021 and written for CSET with another author, Zachary Arnold, Toner stressed the importance of finding new methods to test AI models, and advocated for sharing accident information and cross-border collaboration to minimize the risks. When he joined the OpenAI board, Brockman and Altman celebrated his signing. “I greatly value Helen’s deep reflection on the long-term risks and effects of AI,” Brockman said at the time. “Helen brings an understanding of the global AI landscape with an emphasis on security, which is critical to our efforts and mission. “We are delighted to add her leadership to our board,” Altman added.
For the three independent directors, their positions at OpenAI are secondary occupations. They do not risk their money in the company, but their mission is not to maximize the value of other shareholders and investors, but rather their objective is for artificial intelligence to benefit all of humanity. Security and precautions with the use of artificial intelligence are among its priorities, given the threat that it may ultimately pose to humanity. That idea would fit in that they might prefer to destroy the firm and that that could be consistent with their mission.
The different sensitivities have apparently caused a culture clash with Altman, both over his attempts to accelerate projects and attract new funding, especially after the dazzling success of ChatGPT. Added to this have been Altman’s moves to create his own microprocessor firm for its use in artificial intelligence. The board complained that he had not been frank in his communications and fired him for this lack of transparency and trust, although without specifying what he was referring to.
Elon Musk left the board of OpenAI in February 2018. Then other directors such as Holden Karnofsky, from Open Philanthropy, also left for different reasons; investor Reid Hoffman, and Shivon Zilis, director of Neuralink, another Musk company. In many cases, they have preferred to develop their own artificial intelligence initiatives outside of OpenAI, so their permanence represented a conflict of interest. The firm explains its structure on its website, but does not publish its statutes or internal regulations. Apparently, the appointments of new directors are made by co-option and the majority of the council can decide to dismiss one of its members.
Sutskever remains on the board, but power has now been concentrated in those three independent directors. They refused this Sunday to reverse their decision to fire Sam Altman and accept his conditions. Chaos has engulfed OpenAI and the risk of a mass employee flight is evident after more than 700 of its approximately 750 employees signed a letter saying they will leave the firm if Altman and Brockman do not return. Mira Murati, who was appointed as provisional advisor to replace Altman, is the first on that list in which the repentant Sutskever has also joined. The independents have decided to appoint Emmett Shear, 40, as new CEO, who has warned about the apocalyptic risks of artificial intelligence. He is in favor of stopping its development.
Microsoft has committed 13 billion to OpenAI, but if in the end it ends up directly incorporating all the company’s talent, without the restrictions of the complex structure of the artificial intelligence firm, the move may end up working out for its CEO, Satya Nadella. .
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