OpenAI: Microsoft’s role could raise antitrust concerns

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Sam Altman’s firing at OpenAI was steeped in just the kind of opacity that’s troubling policymakers around the world about the ongoing rush to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and makes them worry if companies can be trusted to regulate themselves and their research. “I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong. And we want to be vocal about it,” Altman said at a US congressional hearing in May. “We want to work with the government to prevent that from happening.”

It was a call for regulation from a company that has become the face of the march towards more advanced levels of Artificial Intelligence with its ChatGPT language-model chatbot. Since its debut a year ago on November 20, 2022, ChatGPT has set off a multitude of debates from the future of mankind in relation to Artificial Intelligence to the futility of school tests for students armed with the chatbot and the need for governments to regulate it without killing it. The OpenAI turmoil rekindled an old question: How to manage Big Tech?

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, a 49 per cent minority stakeholder in OpenAI, was able to get Altman back his job, and restructure the company’s board that fired Altman with just a few phone calls, the public outcomes of which were posted on X, previously Twitter, and other media platforms this reporter may have missed. Microsoft did not even have a seat on the board of OpenAI, not even an observer seat. But it has a $10 billion investment in OpenAI and exclusive rights on its models.

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“We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners,” Nadella wrote on X on November 20, three days after Altman’s firing. And that Microsoft was prepared to work with Emmett Shear, the interim CEO. Then he dropped the bomb on a delayed fuse.

“We’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.” OpenAI’s employees were in open revolt. More than 95 per cent of OpenAI employees had called for Altman’s return or, they had said, they were prepared to resign and, presumably, join the Altman-led project at Microsoft.

The OpenAI board was already under pressure due to criticism. One of them, OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who had led the board’s revolt against their CEO, folded and publicly acknowledged in an Ex post, that he “deeply regret[s] my participation in the board’s actions”. This admission came on November 20, the same day as Nadella’s post mentioned earlier. Two days later, Altman was back at OpenAI. “I love OpenAI, and everything I’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together. When I decided to join MSFT (short for Microsoft) on Sunday evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team. With the new board and w satya’s support, I’m looking forward to returning to OpenAI, and building on our strong partnership with MSFT.”

Nadella reported Altman’s post with his own remarks with an unmistakable victory dance. “We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board. We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance. Sam, Greg, and I have talked and agreed they have a key role to play along with the OAI leadership team in ensuring OAI continues to thrive and build on its mission. We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners.” Game, Match and Set to Microsoft. The OpenAI turmoil has reinforced fears of Big Tech’s influence and could trigger calls for antitrust actions.