The Human Flaw: The Power Struggle to Control God
Dec. 15, 2023. 5 min. read.
SB explores OpenAI's leadership turmoil, power struggles, and uneasy alliances unfold in a drama-filled saga. A cautionary tale of corporate conflicts, ethical dilemmas, and the precarious future of AI innovation.
In the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to a wonderful display of backbiting, intrigue, sentimental hogwash, and brazen power grabbing as the leadership of OpenAI embarked upon a delicious bout of internecine warfare. Altman and Brock were out, then in again, three different CEOs stepped up. Cryptic messages, dark secrets, panicked whispers of a runaway AGI – and Microsoft looming over the show, threatening to buy the whole auditorium and kick out the audience.
An Uneasy Alliance
A solution, it seems, has been found. An entente cordiale between the power players, with Altman restored as head of the board and Microsoft taking an ‘observer’ seat. Ilya, whose Iago-like poisoning of the board against Altman, was left posting heart emojis on Twitter and celebrating the return of the man he tried to stab in the front.
Overall, OpenAI’s staff, at least publicly, looked like college students playing at realpolitik before realising these games have consequences, and that powerful forces like Microsoft could scrub OpenAI from the songsheets of the future. And you couldn’t help but wonder at the vaguely cultish, student dorm vibes of it all, and begin to interrogate who exactly is in command of gestating what some say could be the most powerful and society-changing technology ever created.
There is so much wrong with this whole sordid affair, it’s hard to know where to begin. Mostly, it’s the depressing despair at just how two-faced literally everyone in the corporate world is – publicly and without shame. The complete lack of professionalism displayed on a grand scale at one of the world’s most important companies is cause for alarm. Altman’s ousting was visibly a blatant grab for power, and Altman was quite willing to sell the whole project down the river and gift the vicious zaibatsu that is Microsoft the keys to the kingdom so that he could remain in charge – and continue to prance about as the figurehead of the AI revolution. It was galling.
It’s sad, it’s irresponsible, and worst of all everyone involved is arguing from a position of ‘principle’ that, to this scathing observer, is utterly asinine and false. Make no mistake: this is about money, and this is about power, and – curiously – this is about advertising. The boat-rocking hasn’t tipped the crew overboard, but it’s certainly made some waves. ‘Dangerous new model’, ‘scary powerful’ – is what they say about Q*. Well, you sell the sizzle, not the steak, don’t you? It reestablishes OpenAI at the front of the minds of everyone interested in AI just as the next wave of GPT-products come online.
Speed Up or Slow Down
Of course, I might be wrong. And, even if I’m not, there is a clear schism developing in OpenAI – and across the sector as a whole – about the balance between commercial gain and building AI in a manner ‘that benefits all humanity’ (As OpenAI’s mission statement reads. Don’t be evil, etc. – as Google used to say).
There are the accelerationists, who believe AI will rebuild society and we should strain every sinew to advancing and deploying it in everyday life. There are the decelerationists, who believe the risks associated with unbridled AI threaten to not so much rebuild society, as tear it apart. Altman wants to go faster, Ilya wants to slow down. Altman wants to sell, sell, sell. Ilya wants to build the right way.
For what it’s worth, the decelerationists are wrong. We humans are a pack of Pandoras, and we will open the box. If you don’t do it, someone else will. Capitalism allows for nothing else. If you want to decelerate, fine, resign and go live out what’s left of your normal days on an island. You can’t stop this, Ilya. I applaud principled stances – it’s just a shame that stance was achieved through an attempted coup, and abandoned as soon as they realised it wasn’t going to work.
But for the Altmans out there, or the Altman-fans. Don’t be too quick to think this victory for accelerationism, for commercialism, and for Microsoft (the real winner) is some holy mission to advance AI. It’s only a matter of time before AI-bots are flogged to torment our grandmothers on social media with targeted ads.
Fully-aligned AGI is a powerful dream. A benevolent, technipotent, tireless agent that works to administrate, advance, and protect humanity. The question of alignment is essential, especially when it comes to manufacturing intelligences that have any type of independent ‘will’ that can act beyond their given purpose. Just as essential, though, is the problematic use of ‘dumb’ LLMs to proliferate marketing messaging, sales calls, social interactions – and how their continued use could destabilise the fabric of society. OpenAI and other AI manufacturers must contend with both questions. But it’s easy to guess which they will go for when answering to their shareholders.
There is a human flaw. We are building new gods, but they can’t escape the stains of our morality. We humans can’t help but fight over hierarchy and power. We can’t help but want more and more. It would be a cosmic joke if, just as we approach a singularity which could help us transcend as a species, our ape-like tensions and fireside bickering bring it all crashing down. Worse, we may end up creating a promethean monster, aided and abetted by corporations who don’t care what they do. It will be up to us to forgive them.