Until this week, OpenAI seemed like an unstoppable force. In the space of little more than a year, the San Francisco-based organization was transformed from a research unit on the fringes of the tech industry to the world’s number one dominant AI business.
Every newspaper on the planet seems to have covered the rapid rise of ChatGPT, its flagship AI product. Everyone from software engineers to the local cabbie seems to be using it, with the site attracting in the region of 1.5 billion visits per month.
Control of AI is now firmly concentrated back in the hands of a familiar group of tech behemoths
Such was the might of OpenAI that Microsoft quickly wanted in, committing an eye-watering $10 billion in funding for a stake in the business. And such was the international fame that its star CEO, Sam Altman, had attracted, that Rishi Sunak was desperate to be pictured brushing shoulders with him at Bletchley Park during the British prime minister’s AI safety summit at the start of the month.
Then, almost overnight, OpenAI’s gleaming reputation came crashing down. Thirty-seven-year-old Altman was summed to an impromptu Google Meet, at which he was abruptly fired. The firm’s board put out a statement on Friday saying it “no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” adding, as if to twist the knife in, that Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
The news rocked the tech world, and OpenAI scrambled to get itself together and salvage its image. A new CEO was appointed later that day — but by Sunday, Altman was back at its head office with a guest pass, apparently seeking to claw his way back to the top. That didn’t work out, and by Sunday night, OpenAI had appointed a new CEO (its third in as many days), with hundreds of staff reportedly calling on the board to resign.
The debacle exposed deep flaws in the way the business was governed internally, despite its shiny exterior. The weird corporate structure of the company — part charity, part business — meant it was in a constant internal identity crisis over its mission and its vision. Meanwhile, the firm’s hodgepodge board — comprised not of experienced C-suite execs but a university researcher, a robotics engineer and the boss of a Q&A website — more closely resembled a neighborhood watch forum than the team running a global tech firm.
The upshot is that OpenAI, widely touted to be the world’s leader in the advancement of artificial intelligence, now looks like a tech start-up that got a little ahead of itself.
But while the tech community was watching the firm’s apparent downfall in a state of shock, senior leaders in Silicon Valley were quietly rubbing their hands with glee. OpenAI, the upstart rival with its unique not-for-profit philosophy, looked poised to unseat its giant tech rivals to build tools that were better, faster and more popular, leading the AI race in the process.
ChatGPT has something like six times the online interest of Google’s rival chatbot Bard, according to Google Trends data, and about twelve times the interest of Elon Musk’s rival, Grok. But OpenAI’s stumble in the race to develop super-powerful AI throws it back open. It has handed the lead to Amazon and Google — who together own stakes in rival Anthropic — and Meta. That Microsoft has hired Altman and ousted OpenAI president Greg Brockman to lead its own in-house AI research unit is a sign it may be losing faith in its $10 billion investment.
Control of AI is now firmly concentrated back in the hands of a familiar group of tech behemoths, dashing hopes that a new, less corporate-focused approach to building potentially dangerous frontier technologies might be adopted. The damage to OpenAI is good news for them — it could well prove less good news for the rest of us.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.