The saga unfolded over four days, encompassing the downfall of a technology leader and his return from the depths of defeat.
Last Friday, the board of directors of US artificial intelligence company OpenAI abruptly ousted the firm's CEO, Sam Altman. The decision set off a firestorm of debate, leading to a series of perplexing twists and turns. Then, late Tuesday night, OpenAI announced that Altman would return as CEO. The company also said it would revamp the board that ousted him.
The leadership crisis, though shrouded in speculation, has reverberated around the world — and it highlights the growing concentration of power in the hands of a few corporate leaders, said digital rights activist Fanny Hidvegi, Brussels-based director of European policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Access Now.
"This is just another story that shows us why we need to move away from this dependence on the infrastructure of a few tech companies," Hidvegi told DW.
Around the world, businesses and people are now using AI applications developed by companies like OpenAI. This has led to an increasing reliance on these technologies within entire industries.
"But we still don't have transparency into how these impactful technologies are made," Hidvegi said. "And this whole OpenAI saga shows that a corporate governance structure, no matter how simple or complicated, will never provide the kind of accountability we need."
"Reflecting poorly on our industry”
Altman's ouster from OpenAI caught virtually everyone by surprise — including himself, judging by his social media reaction. But it was preceded by reports of growing strife within the company about the potential dangers of its technology.
To the public, OpenAI is best known for its ChatGPT chatbot and the large language models that underpin the application. But the company is also involved in other cutting-edge AI research, including into what's known as artificial general intelligence: Systems that could one day understand, learn, and apply their intelligence to any problem, much like humans do.
Against that backdrop, a group of scientists at the company consistently raised concerns about the unintended consequences of AI; risks they say Altman has not adequately addressed.
This split illustrates an ongoing divide within the AI community: On one side are those, like Altman, who emphasize AI's vast potential to improve industries and society as a whole. On the other are those who warn of the risks of the technology's rapid development, which they say are being overlooked in the race to commercialize the technology.
Since Altman's ouster, there has been speculation that disagreement over such security concerns led, at least in part, to the board's decision.
Rasmus Rothe, the co-founder of Berlin-based AI investment firm Merantix, told DW that it's unclear "to what extent this dispute was about core philosophical issues surrounding commercialization versus security, or whether it's more about egos and personal disagreements."
"Perhaps it's a little bit of both," he added.
But he said that Altman's ouster and the way the company handled it sent shockwaves through the global AI community, which is connected through joint research and development projects as well as investments.
"It reflects poorly on our industry as a whole, which is still in its infancy and has many companies working hard to establish authority and trust," said the entrepreneur, who is also a board member of the German AI Association industry group. "OpenAI should be a clear leader, but this whole episode has shown an astonishing degree of chaos and amateurism."
The fight over rules for AI
Altman's return is also expected to have an impact on the ongoing global debate about what laws and regulations are needed for artificial intelligence.
In late October, the US issued an executive order outlining requirements for the most advanced AI technology; across the Atlantic, the European Union is finalizing the fine print of its AI Act, the most comprehensive set of legal rules specific to AI.
Few tech executives have been as visible and influential in the conversation about how to regulate AI as the well-spoken 38-year-old, who has traveled the world to meet with lawmakers from Washington, DC to Brussels.
"I hope that regulators will take this saga as proof that they need to listen more to civil society instead of these figureheads or tech visionaries," said Hidvegi, who was a member of an expert group set up by the EU in 2018 as a first step toward regulating AI.
And yet, Altman appears to be the winner of the curent leadership crisis. But he's not the only one, according to Hidvegi.
"Another winner is Microsoft," she said. The US tech giant has invested $13 billion in OpenAI since 2019 and now owns 49% of the company. After Altman's ouster, Microsoft offered to hire him. Now that he's returning to OpenAI, the corporation is reportedly pushing to have a representative on OpenAI's revamped board.
"Once again, Big Tech comes out on top," Hidvegi said.
Edited by Ben Knight