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What OpenAI’s fiasco means for tech (and humanity)

Sam Altman (left) appeared onstage with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at OpenAI's first developer conference. Altman appears set to join Microsoft after he was fired by OpenAI's board.Barbara Ortutay/Associated Press

We’ve reached the cold days of November, which means one thing in the tech world: The biggest, most hyped startup must be imploding.

A year ago it was FTX, the crypto juggernaut led by Sam Bankman-Fried (remember him?). This time it’s OpenAI, which was led by another Sam of head-spinning fame, Sam Altman, until his board fired him on Friday. OpenAI is the company that gave the world ChatGPT, followed by debates over whether AI will destroy humanity… and now a “Succession”-meets-”Silicon Valley” boardroom epic that blew up the weekend of everyone who works in tech.

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The upshot, for now: Altman and his top lieutenant were said to be joining Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest investor, to head up advanced AI research. Who knows if this will come to pass? It could be more posturing, and rumors and threats were flying as of press time. But it’s another surprise in an increasingly chaotic industry.

Here are three key questions, and why you should care.

Why can’t the world’s most influential startups get decent governance?

Is that too much to ask? So much was made of FTX’s lack of oversight and accountability. Granted, crypto is very different from AI. But with the breathless billions of dollars flowing into OpenAI and its partners, you would think the leader of the pack (and its investors) would have some controls in place to avoid a meltdown like this. The company’s weird nonprofit/for-profit structure and board makeup was asking for trouble.

Why does one person (and one company) matter so much to an industry?

Think of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk. Those are Sam Altman’s predecessors. Humans are pack animals. They need a leader and a vision. Like the others, Altman is only human (I think), but he’s a great salesman and he’s the face of AI. In the end, it’s not really about the technology. The technology will do its thing. The future is determined by the people, with all their foibles and mistakes. For now, that means a massive talent war and reshuffling of the AI deck, all over one guy.

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What’s it all good for, anyway?

We still don’t have a clear answer to this question, beyond the money (which is a lot, but not really why most people should care). We know AI has potential to become a useful tool in fields such as medicine, drug discovery, software engineering, and customer service. But it will take serious time, money, and effort to figure out what AI can do best, how it will affect people and jobs, and how to manage it all responsibly and equitably. Given the first two questions above, there’s a lot more to worry about after this weekend.


Gregory T. Huang can be reached at greg.huang@globe.com. Follow him @gthuang.