Sam Altman’s ouster then reinstatement as CEO highlighted divisions at OpenAI and in the tech community.
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Disagreements over the speed of AI development factored into Sam Altman’s brief ousting at OpenAI.It’s highlighted a broader debate in Silicon Valley about how to approach artificial intelligence.Some say AI development should be sped up, but others recommend proceeding more cautiously.
Sam Altman’s brief ousting as OpenAI CEO didn’t just thrust the company further into the global spotlight amid reported personality clashes. It’s also highlighted a bigger ethical debate in Silicon Valley: how fast companies should move when pushing out AI technology.
While Altman has spoken about the dangers of “potentially scary” AI and the “critical” need to regulate it, he’s been chiefly a poster child for rapid innovation. But others at the company have preferred to tread more carefully.
And it’s not just at OpenAI that people have butted heads: it’s now a top talking point across the tech industry. Broadly speaking, the debate lies in whether you think that moving full-speed ahead on AI technology will save the world or you think the industry needs to slow down. The big question: Are you an e/acc or a decel?
So, what’s an e/acc?
Those who want to amp up AI progress identify as effective accelerationists, or e/accs (“ee-acks”) if you’ve come across the label on social media.
They believe that the forces of technology, innovation and capitalism should be harnessed to drive rapid social change.
One key Silicon Valley backer of the idea is veteran venture capitalist Marc Andressen. In a 5,000 word manifesto published in October, he lauded the value of developing technology as fast as possible, saying that as developments in AI ramp up, “we are poised for an intelligence takeoff that will expand our capabilities to unimagined heights.”
Meantime, “any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder,” he wrote.
And what’s a decel?
Decels (a term that’s broadly used critically) represent the other side of the debate, and have crossover with a field known as effective altruism, or EA.
EA is a social movement that looks at how resources should be allocated towards helping as many as possible — such as saving humanity in the face of existential risks like an AI apocalypse. It’s claimed a swath of famous (and infamous) adherents from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, as well as Sam Bankman-Fried.
EA adherents have come to dominate the world of AI safety research — with two of the OpenAI board members who played a hand in Altman’s ousting, Helen Toner and Tasha McCauley, identified with the movement (though in recent years, Toner has started distancing herself from EA, the Wall Street Journal reported). Neither Toner nor McCauley responded to BI’s request for comment. Both have left the board.
How OpenAI’s shakeup magnified the e/accs vs. decels debate
In the days that followed Altman’s brief ousting, investors, entrepreneurs, and techies aligned with the ideas of e/acc came out against EAs — a group they saw as responsible for the drama at OpenAI and slowing down technological progress.
“Effective altruism might be the villain a lot of us here should be focused on,” Sriram Krishnan, general partner at venture firm Andreessen Horowitz wrote on X after Altman was ousted.
Effective altruism might be the villain a lot of us here should be focused on.
— Sriram Krishnan – sriramk.eth (@sriramk) November 18, 2023
However, in response to the online backlash about Altman’s ousting, Toner wrote on November 29, “Though there has been speculation, we were not motivated by a desire to slow down OpenAI’s work.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a middle ground. Responsible Innovation Labs, a nonprofit, launched an AI protocol in November, developed with support from the US Department of Commerce.
“If you haven’t built responsibly and with trust you stand a high risk of wiping out your shareholders,” said Gaurab Bansal, the executive director of Responsible Innovation Labs.
His advice to Silicon Valley: “I would encourage any watchers of the industry to not get stuck in a divisive set of rhetoric.”