Opinion: OpenAI’s drama marks a new and scary era in artificial intelligence

Sam Altman’s dismissal and rapid reinstatement as CEO of OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, confirms that the future of AI is firmly in the hands of people focused on speed and profits, at the expense of all else. This elite will now impose their vision for technology on the rest of humanity. Most of us will not enjoy the consequences.

The founders of OpenAI claimed to be creating a philanthropic organization that would benefit all of humanity or at least protect it from potential harm. OpenAI is ostensibly a nonprofit, and had a small board made up of academics and experts — and notably, did not include investors. We may never know what really happened on Nov. 17, when the board fired Altman, but the most likely interpretation is that members of this board were troubled by Altman’s commercial emphasis and the headlong rush to develop new, powerful models of generative artificial intelligence.

It is encouraging to think there are still people in Silicon Valley who worry about guardrails because digital technology has already done plenty of damage to jobs, wages and democracy. For example, this sector brought us Facebook and social media, which have been used to fan the flames of hatred around the world, in the name of “engagement” and selling more digital ads.

Altman forced the OpenAI board to resign, as a condition of his return to the company. The new board, chaired by former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor, is likely to be more sympathetic to OpenAI scaling up as fast as possible, regardless of the consequences. This recklessness is driven by the profit motive, turbocharged by venture capital, in which the most money flows to products and services that grow fastest, even if this comes with huge financial losses and tremendous societal costs.

Disruption and uncontrolled growth have become religion for the tech industry, and Altman has been one of its most dedicated high priests. Yet unsustainable growth rates and large losses are not supported by the logic of the traditional capitalist market system. Venture capital created this way of operating, but OpenAI doesn’t need traditional VCs, because it has Microsoft, which has already committed $10 billion to the company. Top Microsoft executives stayed focused on their goals during the Altman crisis: hire the talent, promise them unlimited money to spend, and press the pedal to the metal.

Worse, the speed imperative is boosted by the predominant vision in Silicon Valley, which cares little about social responsibility or what happens to people.

An informal spokesperson for this view of the world is Marc Andreessen, legendary venture capitalist and big Altman cheerleader. In October, Andreessen put out his own “Techno-Optimist’s Manifesto,” which included such bizarre statements as “We had a problem of isolation, so we invented the Internet;” “We have a problem of poverty, so we invent technology to create abundance;” and perhaps the purest declaration of tech arrogance: “Give us a real world problem, and we can invent technology that will solve it.”

Tellingly, Mr. Andreesen does not reflect on why there are so many homeless people in the San Francisco Bay area, why there is a mental health crisis among teenagers, why Myanmar is on fire, or why the U.S. has become one of the most unequal and deeply polarized societies in modern history, despite all the technology at our disposal. One can certainly argue that these problems were exacerbated, if not created, by the tech sector.

Altman previously founded Y Combinator, a start-up accelerator, which asks applicants, “Please tell us about the time you, [applicant name], most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.” Silicon Valley leaders love to say things like “move fast and break things” (the internal Facebook motto at one point) or, as Sheera Frankel and Cecelia Kang document in their book on Facebook, “An Ugly Truth”: “F—k it, ship it.”

In Washington D.C., any whiff of regulation or sensible guardrails drives top tech executives apoplectic. The tech bros have embraced the full-fledged libertarian fantasy in which they are the indispensable men.

In “The Shape of Things to Come,” published in the early 1930s, H.G. Wells imagined a dystopian near future, in which aerial bombing campaigns came close to destroying civilization. But, after more than 20 years of disaster, Wells imagined that a new global elite controlling aviation technology would emerge to impose world peace.

Wells was right about the dangers posed by the unbridled and unprincipled development of technology. But his work of science fiction about a dictatorship of the elite holding the keys to the future of the world is just as disturbing today as it was in the heyday of European fascism.

Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson are professors at MIT and co-authors of “Power and Progress: Our 1,000-Year Struggle Over Technology & Prosperity.”

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