🔥 Sam Altman and the Board of Secrets
Reviewing OpenAI's multipart drama
The OpenAI debacle has reached its climax with a new board, the reinstatement of Sam Altman as CEO, and, well, whatever I write will be out of date by the time I hit send. You can read about some of the salient details in the New York Times. Much is still closely guarded.
These past 96 hours have mattered. This wasn’t just about Silicon Valley intrigue (although for many on the West Coast, it seemed to be about that). Let’s pretend it was about the key questions that were the substance of my book, Exponential — how do we organise and govern a society in a time of fast technological change?
Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth
Here is how I think about this.
It doesn’t matter that OpenAI started as a non-profit and now wants to pursue profitable projects. Circumstances change. Facts change. It morphed over the past seven years. It suffered its own exponential gap between the prospects of deploying a useful enterprise technology (for that is what an LLM is) and the governance structure and mission it had in place.
Companies should not self-regulate. Society, through the sovereign state, should set the parameters under which firms operate. And firms should operate within those guardrails. It is just so much easier. The moment a firm serves two masters, someone will get the shaft. Google serves shareholders but through promises to advertisers and users. We get shanked with an increasingly poor search experience.
OpenAI was serving the “benefit of humanity” and customers. The “benefit of humanity” was cutesy when there were no real products and, frankly, nothing useful you could do with the technology. But it doesn’t make sense when a firm actually has something useful to sell. As Logan Roy put it “Money wins.”
(I’ll say more about the “benefit of humanity” momentarily.)
However, given the charter of the non-profit which owned the company was to act, in the board’s determination, for the ‘benefit of humanity”, it doesn’t seem to me that the board could not justify its actions. They could, potentially, have communicated more clearly as I argued. But the loophole in the charter was the power vested in the board against this waffly notion of the “benefit of humanity”. This isn’t the world of R Daneel Olivaw’s “zeroth law of robotics”. It’s the real world.
More helpful than that is Milton Friedman’s instructions for a firm. Now, I’ve criticised Friedman’s narrow definition of a company many times. It’s quite problematic. But it is more crisp, more understandable, than the benefit of humanity”. With Friedman’s definition, at least the scorpion recognises what it is. Somewhere in between the “indescribably greater good” and the mercenary firm is the organisation that is connected to its customers, community, shareholders, employees and finding a space between them.
I’m sorry, Sam, I can’t do that
The problem with the concept of “the benefit of humanity” is that, well, it’s incoherent at best.