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Speculation: What happened at OpenAI?
Unraveling the complex factors behind Sam Altman’s untimely exit
In a turn of events that has violently jolted the tech industry, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, was abruptly ousted by its board of directors on the evening of Friday, November 17th.
The move sparked a deluge of speculation and theories on both social and traditional media attempting to demystify the reasons behind this shift at the top of a pioneering A.I. juggernaut.
OpenAI is now at a crucial juncture with Altman’s departure.
A key figure in the tech landscape, Altman had been closely tied to OpenAI’s vision and direction. Yet, the board’s recent action suggests a labyrinth of internal complexities, strategic discord, and possible concerns regarding Altman’s personal comportment.
In this article, I will examine three key scenarios that could have led to the sudden leadership upheaval at OpenAI.
We review the possibility of internal strategic and philosophical discord, governance challenges, and the repercussions of personal allegations, piecing together a few myriad factors that might have swayed the board's decision.
Scenario 1: Disagreements
This first scenario suggests that Altman’s exit was a result of profound disagreements over the direction of A.I. development. It hints at a possible clash between Altman’s approach to innovation and a different viewpoint held by other board members, possibly shaped by (largely overblown) concerns from the Effective Altruism movement about A.I.’s existential risks.
To support this, I present the following footage of Altman and board member Sutskever, dated June 5, 2023 and posted by Twitter user ThomasJeans:
The most important things to notice in the clip are Altman and Sutskever’s respective body languages.
There is no shortage of researchers and industry titans willing to warn us about the potential destructive power of artificial intelligence. Reading the headlines, one would hope that the recent rapid gains in A.I. tech have also brought forth a unifying realization of the risks — and the steps we must take to mitigate them.
The reality, unfortunately, is quite different.
Beneath almost all of the testimony, manifestos, blog posts, and public declarations issued about A.I. are battles amongst deeply divided factions.
Some are concerned about far-future risks that sound like science fiction, even to many of the scientists who work on these technologies. Some are genuinely alarmed by the practical problems that chatbots and deepfake video generators are creating right now, bias, surveillance, or national security risks. In my estimation, the majority appear to be motivated by potential business revenue.
The result is a cacophony of coded language, contradictory views and provocative policy demands that are undermining our ability to grapple with a technology destined to partially drive the future of politics, reshape our economy, and potentially even restructure our daily lives.
These factions are in dialogue not only with the public, elected leaders and policymakers, but also with one another. Sometimes, they trade letters, opinion essays or social threads outlining their positions and attacking others’ in public view. More often, they tout their viewpoints without acknowledging alternatives, leaving the impression that their enlightened perspective is the inevitable lens through which to view A.I.
But if lawmakers and the public fail to recognize the subtext of their arguments, they risk missing the real consequences of our possible regulatory and cultural paths forward.
To understand the fight and the impact it may have on our shared future, please look past the immediate claims and actions of the players to the greater implications of their points of view. When you do, you’ll realize this isn’t really a debate only about A.I.—It is also a contest about control and power, how resources should be distributed, and who should be held accountable.
Beneath this roiling discord is a true fight over the future of society.
Should we focus on avoiding the dystopia of mass unemployment, or a society where the worst prejudices of humanity are embodied in opaque algorithms that control our lives? Should we listen to oligarchic futurists who discount the importance of climate change because they’re already thinking ahead to colonies on Mars?
In her article “The Cult of the Genius Tech Bro”, independent journalist Heidi Cuda discusses our culture of worship with regard to tech wunderkinds:
“Awe-inducing cover stories in polished tech periodicals, which existed to exalt them on high. The faces of these special boys appearing in chiaroscuro to ensure their canonisation.
It is critical we begin to recognize the ideologies driving what we are being told. Resolving the fracas requires us to see through the specter of A.I. to stay true to the humanity of our values.
One way to decode the motives behind the various declarations is through their language. Because language itself is part of their battleground, the different A.I. camps tend not to use the same words to describe their positions. One faction describes the dangers posed by A.I. through the framework of safety, another through ethics or integrity, yet another through security and others through economics.
By decoding who is speaking and how A.I. is being described, we can explore where these groups differ and what drives their views.
One prominent faction prophesizes A.I. as an existential threat, likening it to godlike entities capable of catastrophic outcomes. Figures such as Geoff Hinton and Yoshua Bengio are notable in this group. This perspective is often intertwined with Longtermism and the Effective Altruism “movement” (cult?) which focuses on extreme catastrophic risks and future consequences to the exclusion of other pressing and immediate issues.
Academic critics such as Émile Torres and Timnit Gebru argue that this focus can lead to dangerous extremes, prioritizing hypothetical future disasters over current societal needs.
Per the New York Times on November 18:
Mr. Brockman said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that even though he was the chairman of the board, he was not part of the board meeting where Mr. Altman was ousted. That left Mr. Sutskever and three other board members: Adam D’Angelo, chief executive of the question-and-answer site Quora; Tasha McCauley, an adjunct senior management scientist at the RAND Corporation; and Helen Toner, director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
They could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Ms. McCauley and Ms. Toner have ties to the Rationalist and Effective Altruist movements, a community that is deeply concerned that A.I. could one day destroy humanity. Today’s A.I. technology cannot destroy humanity.
As you can see from the excerpt above, the NYT specifically mentioned those board members who were responsible for Altman’s ousting as having particular ideological alignment with the ‘Rationalist’ and EA communities.
A second group views A.I. through the lenses of capitalism, business competitiveness, and national security. This narrative is often championed by tech giants like Altman and Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, who advocate for A.I. regulations ostensibly for security purposes which may also serve to popularize their product, promote their potential power, and entrench their market positions.
As reported by The New York Times in a June article titled, “How Sam Altman Stormed Washington to Set the A.I. Agenda”,
“[Altman’s] charm offensive has put him in an important seat of influence. By engaging with lawmakers early, Mr. Altman is shaping the debate on governing A.I. and educating Washington on the complexities of the technology, especially as fears of it grow.”
This perspective misrepresents A.I. research's international nature, and appears influenced by self-interest, financial or otherwise.
Contrasting these two groups are the academic defenders of peoples impacted by A.I.
This group, which includes advocates like Timnit Gebru, Joy Buolamwini, Meredith Broussard, Rumman Chowdhury, and Safiya Umoja Noble, focuses on present-day inequities and harms exacerbated by A.I. such as racial and gender bias, surveillance, and exploitation. These individuals generally push for A.I. to be developed responsibly, with a keen eye towards social justice and integrity. This perspective is deeply aligned with immediate human concerns and advocates for A.I. that does not perpetuate existing societal harms.
Understanding these factions and their underlying ideologies is crucial for lawmakers and the public to navigate the A.I. landscape effectively. The defenders' perspective, focused on addressing immediate A.I.-related issues and advocating for social justice, stands out as the most grounded and socially-responsible approach.
In contrast, other factions, driven by future-focused philosophies, cultist cultures, or profit motives, risk overlooking or exacerbating current societal challenges.
Recognizing these dynamics is essential.
To further investigate these topics, I recommend Dave Troy’s essential article in The Washington Spectator which discusses the acronym TESCREAL. If you are limited on time or simply enjoy listening, this podcast with Troy and the progenitors of this terminology should work well for you.
Scenario 2: Transparency and Governance Issues
Pointing to the board’s remarks about Altman’s lack of transparency, theory #2 delves into possible governance conflicts. Here, we consider the idea that Altman might have made critical decisions without proper disclosure or board consensus, eroding trust and governance norms.
However, senior leadership at OpenAI has already sought to dispel this concern internally and provide the impression of little-to-no internal impact for whatever wrongdoing in which Altman was engaged which led to his firing.
According to Axios, an internal memo sent by OpenAI’s Chief Operating Officer Brad Lightcap stated:
“We can say definitively that the board's decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices.
This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.”
This memorandum was issued after the board’s initial statement to the public, which is partially reproduced below:
“Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.
The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”
After this announcement, which, as reported by Axios, caught major investor Microsoft off guard (its CEO, Satya Nadella, had recently shared a stage with Altman), with other major investors learning about the move via social media, it seems Altman attempted to orchestrate a swift response to the board's decision.
Through the weekend, a group of Altman’s former colleagues and employees had mobilized to rally around him, including Greg Brockman, who had also been removed from his role as the board’s president and subsequently fully resigned his role at the company.
This action by Altman could have been an attempt to regain control and maintain influence with his colleagues still employed at the company following his unexpected dismissal—no doubt driven on some level by these employees themselves.
In fact, three senior researchers quit the company upon Altman’s firing and Brockman’s demotion from the board and subsequent resignation. However, as of Saturday night, the three men “appeared headed back to OpenAI in a stunning reversal” according to The Information.
What company of this importance would publicly state a vote of ‘no confidence’, yet would consider reinstating its ousted CEO less than 48 hours later, who had already stated he would start a new company with the resigned board president within the same time frame?
This circumstance highlights the considerable leverage and influence Altman still wielded at OpenAI.
While tonight’s news has revealed OpenAI’s board has chosen Emmett Shear—a former partner at Y Combinator (YC) and Twitch’s former CEO— to succeed Altman as CEO, many open questions remain, including: why the upheaval, why those researchers changed their minds, why Altman was even in discussions for reinstatement, and what information still remains hidden from the public behind boardroom doors.
Scenario 3: Personal Allegations and Corporate Risk Management
While not directly linked to his professional role, historical abuse allegations against Altman by his sister, Annie Altman, though still unproven, may have cast a significant shadow on his ability to lead.
Questions from the board about these allegations, which could present a significant risk to the company, may not have gone well.
According to Slate Magazine:
Prior to Brockman and Altman’s joint statement, tech folks online had reinvited speculation around some uglier allegations. For a lengthy September profile of Sam, New York magazine’s Elizabeth Weil spoke in depth with his younger sister, Annie Altman, who explained how she fell out with her family more broadly, citing Sam’s emotional callousness and Silicon Valley ambitions.
The profile also brought attention to a series of years-old tweets from Annie in which she alleged “experience[ing] sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, financial, and technological abuse from my biological siblings, mostly Sam Altman.”
To be clear, these remain allegations, and were not mentioned by anyone (even Annie) as a cause of the firings.
I was able to verify the existence of these claims on her social media.
I also found more detailed compendium of Annie Altman’s public statements on the topic which appears to have been compiled by a member of the Effective Altruism (EA) community on the most prominent forum for EA’s.
He began the post as follows:
“This post aims to raise awareness of a collection of statements made by Annie Altman, Sam Altman's (lesser-known) younger sister, in which Annie asserts that she has suffered various (severe) forms of abuse from Sam Altman throughout her life (as well as from her brother Jack Altman, though to a lesser extent.)
Annie states that the forms of abuse she's endured include sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, financial, technological (shadowbanning), pharmacological (forced Zoloft), and psychological abuse.”
You may find the discussion section of the post to be enlightening in terms of the coldness of the statements made about Annie Altman, an ostensible victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of at least one sibling, who she claims has conspired to deny her inheritance funds, which has in turn led her to sex work to support herself.
Despite OP’s statements throughout which demonstrate their level of doubt regarding the veracity of Annie Altman’s statements, they acknowledge the following:
“If Annie's claims turn out to be (provably) true, this would likely warrant an immediate dismissal of Sam Altman from his current position position (sic) as CEO of OpenAI, as well as from a variety of other impactful positions he currently holds.
Given the gravity of this post and its potential ramifications, I chose to make this post anonymously.”
In an era where personal behaviors are under the microscope due to their potential risk impact to a company’s bottom line, such allegations can profoundly affect a leader’s credibility and staying power.
Here she is, in her own words:
Interestingly, the co-founder of the EA forum, LessWrong, is A.I. researcher and EA influencer Eliezer Yudkowsky, who said he is “8.5% more cheerful about OpenAI going forward” with the fact that CTO Mira Murati has been named interim CEO in the wake of Altman’s firing.
Additional allegations have emerged that Annie Altman’s posts have been unfairly moderated and removed from prominent Silicon Valley discussion board Hacker News.
While Altman was reportedly not very involved with Hacker News, a social news website associated with YC (where he was president from 2014-2019), his leadership role at YC strongly links him to this key platform for tech and startup discussions. Platform moderation decisions which appear to be outside the norm can indicate some cultural or organizational interest in managing a particular public narrative.
This is also a story about the tech media & its entanglement with industry. Annie was not hard to find. Nobody did the basic reporting on his family — or no one wanted to risk losing access by including Annie in a piece.
In response to a question from a reader, “Do you think access to Sam is this prized? Wondering if journalists worry about losing access to his billionaire pals too”, Weil replied:
of course — worry about losing access to pals, allies, people he funds, people he might fund, others in tech who don't want to talk with journalists who might independently report out a story and not rely on comms....
More recently, a tweet by Émile Torres about Annie Altman’s prior allegations on October 5 garnered more than 1 million views.
This is Sam Altman's sister. Her tweets about sexual, physical, emotional, etc. abuse are incredibly hard to read. Seems that no one in the media is that interested in covering this story because they're afraid of losing access to OpenAI if they write something critical of Sam.
Altman’s accusations of abuse against her brother traverse sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, financial, technological, pharmacological, and psychological domains. Her choice to share her allegations on social media mirrors the increasing trend of abuse survivors utilizing these platforms to voice their experiences and seek community support, similar to the #MeToo movement. Despite her compelling narrative and persistent claims, significant media coverage, especially in major publications, has been sparse. The mainstream media's restrained response to these serious allegations, coinciding with Sam Altman's dismissal from OpenAI for reasons reportedly unrelated to the organization's internal affairs, raises several questions. Factors contributing to this limited media attention may include the unresolved nature of the allegations, potential legal ramifications, the prominent status of the accused, and his influential role in the technology sector.
Altman has describes a phenomenon of delayed memory recall related to the alleged sexual abuse, coupled with intense flashbacks, a symptomatology that resonates with contemporary clinical understanding of trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The resurfacing of repressed traumatic memories in later life, often catalyzed by specific stimuli or life events, is a well-established concept in clinical research, mirroring the patterns of trauma response and memory reemergence commonly observed in PTSD cases. Altman's struggles with various mental health issues, including panic attacks, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, can be easily conceptualized within the broader context of enduring impacts of childhood trauma and abuse. It is still important to acknowledge that while these mental health symptoms may be indicative of past trauma, they do not serve as definitive proof of its occurrence.
However, the Altman family dynamics as portrayed in the recently published profile in New York Magazine paint a picture of a complex familial environment where Altman clearly perceives herself to be marginalized and lacking support. Elsewhere, she described herself as being financially coerced by her family to take psychoactive medication she and her doctor agreed isn’t right for her as a condition of access to her inheritance funds via their deceased father’s 401K. She has also stated she “did two family therapy sessions with Sam and my mother and was professionally advised to stop.”
From my research about therapy, I’ve learned the client's safety and well-being are paramount. Therapists may discourage joint sessions if the alleged abusers' presence risks re-traumatization, or if they deny the abuse and show no remorse as this could further harm the victim. Adhering to ethical guidelines, therapists might suggest avoiding family therapy if it appears unhelpful or worsens the client's distress.
Considering the seriousness of Annie Altman’s allegations against her brother Sam Altman, it appears imperative that an investigation be launched.
Convergence: Scenarios 1, 2, and 3
Considering the information at hand, it seems plausible that Scenarios 1, 2 and 3 have converged, leading to Altman’s departure.
The board, already facing governance challenges, potentially viewed the resurgence of personal allegations against Altman as an exacerbating factor that could not be overlooked. This blend of internal governance issues, differences in strategic and ideological alignment, and potential reputational harm could have led them to decide a decisive change in leadership was necessary as a risk management measure.
I speculate that while Scenarios 2 and 3 may have played major roles here, the role of Scenario 1—strategic and ideological discord—should not be understated.
This aspect certainly influenced the sequence of events. The divisions within the AI community certainly laid the groundwork for this upheaval. It is possible that Annie Altman’s allegations, though not directly related to Sam Altman’s professional role, may have provided the board with a timely avenue to address existing internal conflicts in a decisive manner. This theory neatly aligns with the COO’s internal memorandum regarding the lack of connection between Altman’s ouster and corporate “malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices.”
The awful allegations against Sam Altman may have offered the board a more clear-cut pretext for a decision that might otherwise have been much more contentious and difficult, especially in the public eye.
However, if these allegations are indeed the primary reason for Altman’s ouster, no one is saying so yet.
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