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Larry Summers jumps to center of AI stage with OpenAI board seat

Larry Summers during a panel session on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 19.Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Late on Tuesday night, OpenAI announced the return of Sam Altman, its ousted chief executive officer, along with a revamped board that included one name not often associated with Silicon Valley: Larry Summers.

The economist and former Treasury Secretary joined Bret Taylor, a former co-CEO of Salesforce Inc., and existing board member Adam D’Angelo in forming what the company called an “initial board.” OpenAI’s prior directors fired Altman suddenly on Friday, setting off a dramatic saga that cast doubt on the future of the most closely-watched startup and technology.

OpenAI said it was still working to “figure out the details” of its new management in a post online. But with Summers it has a board member with deep ties to Wall Street and Washington — and an adamant belief that artificial intelligence is coming for white-collar jobs.

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Summers sits on a couple of tech boards already: Block Inc., Jack Dorsey’s payments firm, and the software company Skillsoft Corp. He was named an adviser to powerhouse venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in 2011, but has not been publicly involved with its recent investments. Summers led the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration and worked as an economic adviser in the Obama administration, serving as president of Harvard University in between. He is now a paid contributor to Bloomberg Television.

The few comments he has made about AI have centered on the labor impact.

In 2018, Summers disputed the claims from then Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that AI would not replace American jobs for 50 to 100 years. “The robots are coming,” Summers wrote in the Washington Post. That year, he also warned of economic catastrophe if the US “loses its lead” in biotech and AI to China.

In December, 2022, a month after the arrival of ChatGPT — the chatbot from OpenAI that set off the recent AI boom — Summers compared the service to the printing press, electricity and even older human advances. “This could be the most important general purpose technology since the wheel or fire,” he said on Bloomberg TV.

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Then in April, Summers said ChatGPT was “coming for the cognitive class,” predicting that it would render higher-skilled roles obsolete first. “ChatGPT is going to replace what doctors do, hearing symptoms and making diagnoses, before it changes what nurses do,” he told Bloomberg TV. “It’s going to change what traders do going in and out of financial markets before it changes what sales people do.”

At OpenAI, Summers will likely be tasked with recruiting a fuller board and sorting out the company’s governance. That board could include Altman and Microsoft Corp., its biggest backer, according to a person familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified disclosing details of private negotiations.

In 2005, when Summers was president of Harvard University, his comments that innate differences in sex kept women from flourishing in math and science careers drew outrage. He apologized for the comments.

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