Strange Business

A nerdy looking guy in a boxing ring faces three men in suits, surrounded by a group of spectators
image by DALL-E 3 (OpenAI). On purpose.

Yesterday, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, was suddenly fired by the board of directors, and Greg Brockman, co-founder and president, quit in solidarity. Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and a member of its board, defended the decision in a company all-hands meeting. The only thing we know is that the company says Mr. Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications” with the board.

Ilya Sutskever has a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Toronto, where he studied under Geoffrey Hinton (the so-called “Godfather of AI”) and is one of the world’s leading experts in artificial intelligence. The new temporary CEO, Mira Murati, was the former CTO of OpenAI.

Who knows what was behind the board’s decision? Maybe Altman just has a bad habit of yodeling and playing the banjo when he’s nervous, and it finally drove the board over the edge? (That would definitely have done it.)

I don’t think it actually matters that much. I’m sure Sam Altman will land on his sneaker-clad feet, and OpenAI will also do just fine without him.

OpenAI also recently made headlines by offering $10 million compensation packages to lure top AI researchers away from Google. That started me wondering if perhaps that was one of the things that led to Altman’s departure?

I’ve been thinking about the odd nature of celebrity in technology, business, and politics. The strange thing is that you don’t actually have to give your 11 children weird names and destroy a social media company, or have a pathological fear of windmills, throw ketchup on the wall, and store stolen classified documents in your bathroom to be a celebrity – you can do it somewhat anonymously. Let me explain.

Do you know the names of many top AI researchers at Google? I don’t. I kind of doubt that they’re actually worth more than 40 other senior engineers or scientists combined (assuming $250,000 a year as an average). But maybe it’s not entirely about them?

Larry McCarthy, the CEO of Peloton, makes a smidge over $168 million a year. (A “smidge” is $73,420, in case you were curious.) The average Peloton employee makes $105,000 a year according to Is McCarthy really worth as much as 1,600 other employees?

Is it the celebrity effect at work here? Larry McCarthy doesn’t earn that much because he’s that much more productive, but because he’s that much more influential, right?

I kind of doubt it. For one thing, his name is actually Barry McCarthy – and unless you work for Forbes Magazine or Peloton, chances are I slipped that right past you.

What we’re seeing with the $10 million AI researcher and the $168 million CEO is not really the celebrity effect at work. The celebrity effect is the tendency to overvalue the contributions of people who are famous or well-known, and undervalue the contributions of people who are not.

Compensation is a reflection of a story told by an organization about how important the company is, as much as it is a story told about how important a person is.

Maybe that is part of the reason behind the split at OpenAI?

Perhaps they just wanted to tell different stories.

(Or it could be the yodeling and banjo thing. You never know.)


Sunday, November 19, 2023

Well, it’s been nearly 2 whole days, which seems to be as long as it takes for the whole AI industry to change these days. “Radical Uncertainty” is the new normal.

According to an article in The Verge, Sam Altman is in discussions with the board to return as CEO.

Rather than just haul out the tired old trope of “truth is stranger than fiction”, I thought I’d see what GitHub Copilot would generate as a completion for this section. Here’s what it came up with:

OpenAI has announced that they are changing their name to “ClosedAI”, and will be focusing on developing AI systems that can be used to make money. They will be using the money to fund research into AI systems that can be used to make more money.

Note: that’s not true, of course. As far as I know.

I thought it was a funny thing for an AI assistant to write, though…


Monday, November 20, 2023

Another day, another apparently huge change in this story.

Sam Altman has been offered, and accepted, a role at Microsoft where he will lead a new AI subsidiary along with Greg Brockman.

Shortly after that announcement, a letter signed by more than 700 OpenAI employees said they would resign and possibly join Microsoft “unless all current board members resign, and the board appoints two new lead independent directors, such as Bret Taylor and Will Hurd, and reinstates Sam Altman and Greg Brockman.”

The best article I’ve seen about what we know about what went on is from The Atlantic in an article written by Karen Hao and Charlie Warzel: Inside the Chaos at OpenAI

Popcorn sales are up 300% in the last 24 hours, according to a report from the Silicon Valley Popcorn Council.

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