Who should be in charge of AI?
A question that nearly destroyed an $87 billion company.
Happy Friday, and welcome to December.
To my fellow winter haters: the dread season is here. We’re going to be OK.
At some point I do think it’s worth having a national conversation about why all of the winter holidays are so front-loaded. Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and then just … an expanse of frozen desert. January: bupkis. February: Valentine’s Day? Come on.
Anyway, if you also struggle with winter and have suggestions for techniques that work (besides SAD lamps, I am not a believer!) please let me know in the comments.
OK. Sorry. I know this newsletter isn’t about seasons, it’s about podcasts. The good news? We have a new one for you.
This week, the story of a very brief, very absurd revolution at the world’s leading artificial intelligence company, OpenAI. And we try to answer the quite real question that might be animating all of the drama.
We put this story together in four days (!) fueled mainly by our team’s deep fascination with this story. Sam Altman, the leader of the most successful artificial intelligence company was deposed by his own board, run out of his company, and then reinstated just five days later.
As a bystander, I have found this OpenAI story hypnotic.
Part of that, I’ll admit, is just an attraction to tales of boardroom drama. But I stuck on the story because it goes much deeper than that. The world of AI is moving so quickly. The questions about who should be in charge of it are questions that have taxed everyone in the space. I enjoyed digging into everything from a history of corporate boards, 1500-2023 to the modern OpenAI charter in an attempt to understand how we got here, and where we might be going.
And, as always, it was a treat to talk over these past weeks with Platformer’s Casey Newton about what all of this might mean. I walked away with a good sense for now, about how much to worry, and be excited about AI.
Also — if you have questions you’d like answered, either about OpenAI or AI more generally, please drop them in the comments. We expect this will be a topic we return to.
As always, if you want to help support this project, you can do so here.
Real life meet-up
I mentioned this in our last episode, but we’re working on a meet-up in Brooklyn for those Search Engine listeners who pay to subscribe to the newsletter.
Sruthi and I are viciously arguing about whether this should take place in December or January. But in either case, it’s gonna be fun*.
I’ll be there, as will most of the Search Engine team (Armen’s in Canada). Mainly the idea it’s a chance for you all to meet each other. Listening to a podcast means being in a big crowd of people you would probably like but can’t see or meet, and we wanted to run an experiment in remedying that.
I’m going to send out a survey early next week to paid subscribers only. I don’t want to clog everyone else’s inboxes. But please look for it. The survey is designed to give us a sense of how big a room we need and where the room should be. The survey will also ask where else in the country or the world people would like future meet-ups to happen. Vote early, vote once. And if you’re not a paid subscriber yet, you can sign up here. We are probably raising prices soon, so lock in at current rates
*For you, it’ll be fun. I have an immoderate amount of social anxiety vis-a-vis crowds and strangers, so what I forecast for myself is that it could be fun but will certainly be interesting. If you come, I predict the funniest thing is that I genuinely don’t know how to end any conversation, so whoever I meet first, we will talk for 3 hours and then I’ll go home.
Further reading and listening for the episode:
The Wall Street Journal had, in my opinion, the best moment-for-moment account of what actually happened over at OpenAI: Behind the Scenes of Sam Altman’s Showdown at OpenAI.
Semafor’s Reed Albergotti seems to be quite well-sourced at OpenAI. He’s one of the people I’ve been following to track the aftermath. This morning I’m reading the piece he co-bylined with Louise Matsakis: The reason behind Sam Altman’s ouster leaves OpenAI staff uneasy after his return.
The New Yorker’s 2016 profile was the best one I read of Sam Altman: Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny.
Matt Levine is your favorite newsletter writer’s favorite newsletter writer. He’s great at explaining financial and tech complexity, but also as a chronicler of absurdity. So of course he’s shone on OpenAI. OpenAI is still an $86 Billion Non Profit.
Hard Fork, hosted by Kevin Roose and Casey Newton, has become an emergency podcast factory during this imbroglio, I recommend them always.
Ezra Klein was thinking about AI earlier than a lot of journalists I follow. He first interviewed Sam Altman in 2021.
This week he also spoke to the Hard Forkers, Casey and Kevin, about the OpenAI mess. You can listen here: A lot has happened in A.I. Let's catch up.
I haven’t heard it yet, because it’s Friday morning and I’ve been writing you this letter, but I’m excited to hear it.
OK. That’s it for this week, we’ll be back next week with a new one that I’m very excited to share with you. Also, if anyone’s at the Hold Steady show tonight in Brooklyn, say hi.
Thanks for listening,