This is a quickly-written opinion piece, of what I understand about OpenAI. I first posted it to Facebook, where it had some discussion


Some arguments that OpenAI is making, simultaneously:

  1. OpenAI will likely reach and own transformative AI (useful for attracting talent to work there).
  2. OpenAI cares a lot about safety (good for public PR and government regulations).
  3. OpenAI isn’t making anything dangerous and is unlikely to do so in the future (good for public PR and government regulations).
  4. OpenAI doesn’t need to spend many resources on safety, and implementing safe AI won’t put it at any competitive disadvantage (important for investors who own most of the company).
  5. Transformative AI will be incredibly valuable for all of humanity in the long term (for public PR and developers).
  6. People at OpenAI have thought long and hard about what will happen, and it will be fine.
  7. We can’t predict concretely what transformative AI will look like or what will happen after (Note: Any specific scenario they propose would upset a lot of people. Vague hand-waving upsets fewer people).
  8. OpenAI can be held accountable to the public because it has a capable board of advisors overseeing Sam Altman (he said this explicitly in an interview).
  9. The previous board scuffle was a one-time random event that was a very minor deal.
  10. OpenAI has a nonprofit structure that provides an unusual focus on public welfare.
  11. The nonprofit structure of OpenAI won’t inconvenience its business prospects or shareholders in any way.
  12. The name “OpenAI,” which clearly comes from the early days when the mission was actually to make open-source AI, is an equally good name for where the company is now.* (I don’t actually care about this, but find it telling that the company doubles down on arguing the name still is applicable).

So they need to simultaneously say:

“We’re making something that will dominate the global economy and outperform humans at all capabilities, including military capabilities, but is not a threat.”

“Our experimental work is highly safe, but in a way that won’t actually cost us anything.”

“We’re sure that the long-term future of transformative change will be beneficial, even though none of us can know or outline specific details of what that might actually look like.”

“We have a great board of advisors that provide accountability. Sure, a few months ago, the board tried to fire Sam, and Sam was able to overpower them within two weeks, but next time will be different.”

“We have all of the benefits of being a nonprofit, but we don’t have any of the costs of being a nonprofit.”

Meta’s messaging is clearer.

“AI development won’t get us to transformative AI, we don’t think that AI safety will make a difference, we’re just going to optimize for profitability.”

Anthropic’s messaging is a bit clearer

“We think that AI development is a huge deal and correspondingly scary, and we’re taking a costlier approach accordingly, though not too costly such that we’d be irrelevant.”

This still requires a strange and narrow worldview to make sense, but it’s still more coherent.

But OpenAI’s messaging has turned into a particularly tangled mess of conflicting promises. It’s the kind of political strategy that can work for a while, especially if you can have most of your conversations in private, but is really hard to pull off when you’re highly public and facing multiple strong competitive pressures.

If I were a journalist interviewing Sam Altman, I’d try to spend as much of it as possible just pinning him down on these countervailing promises they’re making. Some types of questions I’d like him to answer would include:

“Please lay out a specific, year-by-year, story of one specific scenario you can imagine in the next 20 years.”

“You say that you care deeply about long-term AI safety. What percentage of your workforce is solely dedicated to long-term AI safety?”

“You say that you think that globally safe AGI deployments require international coordination to go well. That coordination is happening slowly. Do your plans work conditional on international coordination failing? Explain what your plans would be.”

“What do the current prediction markets and top academics say will happen as a result of OpenAI’s work? Which clusters of these agree with your expectations?”

“Can you lay out any story at all for why we should now expect the board to do a decent job overseeing you?”

What Sam likes to do in interviews, like many public figures, is to shift specific questions into vague generalities and value statements. A great journalist would fight this, force him to say nothing but specifics, and then just have the interview end.

I think that reasonable readers should, and are, quickly learning to just stop listening to this messaging. Most organizational messaging is often dishonest but at least not self-rejecting. Sam’s been unusually good at seeming genuine, but at this point, the set of incoherent promises seems too baffling to take literally.

Instead, I think the thing to do is just ignore the noise. Look at the actual actions taken alone. And those actions seem pretty straightforward to me. OpenAI is taking the actions you’d expect from any conventional high-growth tech startup. From its actions, it comes across a lot like:

We think AI is a high-growth area that’s not actually that scary. It’s transformative in a way similar to Google and not the Industrial Revolution. We need to solely focus on developing a large moat (i.e. monopoly) in a competitive ecosystem, like other startups do.

OpenAI really seems almost exactly like a traditional high-growth tech startup now, to me. The main unusual things about it are the facts that: 

  1.  Its in an area that some people (not the OpenAI management) think is unusually high-risk,
  2. Its messaging is unusually lofty and conflicting, even for a Silicon Valley startup, and
  3. It started out under an unusual nonprofit setup, which now barely seems relevant.
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Meta’s messaging is clearer.

“AI development won’t get us to transformative AI, we don’t think that AI safety will make a difference, we’re just going to optimize for profitability.”


So, Meta's messaging is actually quite inconsistent. Yann LeCun says (when speaking to certain audiences, at least) that current AI is very dumb, and AGI is so far away it's not worth worrying about all that much. Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, is quite vocal that their goal is AGI and that they're making real progress towards it, suggesting 5+ year timelines.

I think Yann LeCun thinks "AGI in 2040 is perfectly plausible", AND he believes "AGI is so far away it's not worth worrying about all that much". It's a really insane perspective IMO. As recently as like 2020, "AGI within 20 years" was universally (correctly) considered to be a super-soon forecast calling for urgent action, as contrasted with the people who say "centuries".

That could be.

My recollection from Zuckerberg was that he was thinking of transformative AI, at least, as a fairly far-away goal, more like 8 to 20 years++ (and I'd assume "transformative AI" would be further), and that overall, he just hasn't talked much about it. 

I wasn't thinking of all of Yann LeCun's statements, in part because he makes radical/nonsensible-to-me statements all over the place (which makes me assume he's not representing the whole department). It's not clear to me how much most of his views represent Meta, though I realize he is technically in charge of AI there.

[-]O O50

He isn’t in charge there. He simply offers research directions and probably a link to academia.

Do you have a source for that? His website says:

VP and Chief AI Scientist, Facebook

[-]O O30

I recall him saying this on Twitter and linking a person in a leadership position who runs things there. Don’t know how to search that.

I've been following Sam Altman's messaging for a while, and it feels like Altman does not have one consistent set of beliefs (like an ethics/safety researcher would) but tends to say different things in different times and places, depending on what seems currently most useful for achieving his goals. Many CEOs do that, but he seems to do that more than other OpenAI staff or executives at Anthropic or Deepmind. I agree with your conclusion, to pay less attention to their messaging and more to their actions. 


Broadly agree except for this part:

 Its in an area that some people (not the OpenAI management) think is unusually high-risk,

I really can't imagine that someone who wrote "Development of superhuman machine intelligence is probably the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity." in 2015 and occasionally references extinction as a possibility when not directly asked about doesn't think AGI development is high risk.

I'm not sure how to square this circle. I almost hope Sam is being consciously dishonest and has a 4D chess plan, as opposed to self-deluding himself that while it's dangerous the risks are low or they're somehow worth it. But it seems that the latter is more likely based on some other stuff he said, e.g. "What I lose the most sleep over is the hypothetical idea that we already have done something really bad by launching ChatGPT".


Flagging the most upvoted comment thread on EA Forum, with replies from Ozzie, which begins:

This post contains many claims that you interpret OpenAI to be making. However, unless I'm missing something, I don't see citations for any of the claims you attribute to them. Moreover, several of the claims feel like they could potentially be described as misinterpretations of what OpenAI is saying or merely poorly communicated ideas.

My impression is that post-board drama, they’ve de-emphasised the non-profit messaging. Also in a more recent interview Sam said basically ‘well I guess it turns out the board can’t fire me’ and that in the long term there should be democratic governance of the company. So I don’t think it’s true that #8-10 are (still) being pushed simultaneously with the others.

I also haven’t seen anything that struck me as communicating #3 or #11, though I agree it would be in OpenAI’s interest to say those things. Can you say more about where you are seeing that?

To add from the recent fiasco about Scarlett Johansson:

(1) We are concerned about people developing emotional attachments to our agents

(2) We picked a voice to make it easier for people to develop emotional attachments to our agents.