The events of the weekend at OpenAI remind me of an African coup. And countercoup.
UPDATE: The Countercoup also failed. The OpenAI board refused to take Altman back, replacing him with a former head of the Twitch gaming service. Altman and Brockman were given jobs at Microsoft.
OpenAI co-founder Ivan Sutskever, who had seen Jakub Pachocki promoted to a position as his equal, convinced three outside board members to dump CEO Sam Altman. But the plotters didn’t tell Microsoft, which holds a controlling interest. By Sunday, Altman and president Greg Brockman seemed to be on their way back. They were helped by supportive tweets from tech billionaires like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Beyond the drama is a serious argument over how dangerous Generative AI is. Sutskever says it’s very dangerous. It’s also about how profitable AI can become. Altman says it’s very profitable. Both are right.
What both are ignoring are the rest of us.
The rest of us are represented by governments. Love it or hate it, government has the authority, indeed the duty, to control monopolies and protect the people from harm. Both Altman and Sutskever see themselves as above the law. While it’s true that code is law it’s also true that government isn’t powerless against the Internet.
The Lesson is Muddling Through
We live in an age of contention between dictators and democracies. We don’t know as I write this which side will win. Democracy and free markets should. Talent is the oil of the 21st century. Talent demands education, freedom, and physical comfort to do its best work. These emerge best from open systems and markets. These are flexible and capable of change, evolving as people and their needs evolve.
When I started blogging, almost 20 years ago, I believed technologists would be inclined to the common good. Adam Smith believed they would in The Wealth of Nations. What we see with Altman, Sutskever and other billionaires like Elon Musk is that they’re not. Rich people are just like poor people. They care about themselves and see everyone else’s interest as merely theoretical.
For those who work with technology, this makes supporting democracy more important than ever. OpenAI must be controlled, and AI must be controlled, just as cryptocurrency must be controlled, just as hacking must be controlled.
But an all-powerful government is no better for tech than an all-powerful Sam Altman or an all-powerful Elon Musk. All power must be conditional, its holder subject to the law. Even the law must be subject to the support of the people and their general welfare. We’re what wealth is meant for.
Every politician must be willing to surrender power, knowing they can end up like Donald Trump. Every rich man must obey the law, knowing they could end up like Sam Bankman-Fried. What both cases have in common is the rule of law, supervised by the will of a democratic people.
Until Sam, Ivan, Elon, Donald, and the rest of us accept this, the future is at risk.