pistor30_Justin SullivanGetty Images_sam altman Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In AI, Capital Wins Again

The OpenAI saga – in which founder and CEO Sam Altman was suddenly fired and then reinstated, together with a new governing board – may have been enthralling, but it was neither novel nor surprising. Historically, capital usually wins out when there are competing visions for the future of an innovative product or business model.

NEW YORK – Already on a long winning spree, capital has just scored another big victory in a clash over the ethics of artificial intelligence. In the drama over OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s sudden firing and rehiring, a non-profit company with a mission to prioritize AI safety over profits has failed spectacularly to keep its for-profit offspring on a leash.

OpenAI, Inc. was founded in 2015 with the goal of ensuring that artificial general intelligence – autonomous systems that can outperform humans in all or most tasks – does not become uncontrollable, if and when it is ever achieved. AGI’s potential raises the same dilemma that Mary Shelley introduced in Frankenstein. Our creation might destroy us, but who can stop anyone from pursuing the fame, power, and wealth that “success” would confer? The Altman saga offers one answer: We cannot count on ethical rules, corporate-governance structures, or even principled governing board members to keep us safe. They tried, much to their credit, but it wasn’t enough.

Originally, OpenAI, Inc. sought to raise enough funds through donations to compete in a fast-developing and highly competitive domain. But with only $130 million generated in three years, it fell far short of its $1 billion goal. It would need to turn to private capital while trying to preserve its original mission within an elaborate governance structure.