Sam Altman on his ouster, the dangers of AI and Taylor Swift

When Sam Altman was abruptly fired last month as CEO of artificial intelligence powerhouse OpenAI, the rupture left him with a lot of thinking to do.

But looking back on the experience, Altman told comedian Trevor Noah in a video podcast released Thursday morning, there may have been some upside.

“The empathy I gained out of this whole experience, and my recompilation of values, for sure was a blessing in disguise,” Altman told the former “Daily Show” host in one of his first major interviews since triumphantly returning to the tech company. “It was at a painful cost, but I’m happy to have had the experience in that sense.”

It was one of several subjects the technologist — whose company is behind major consumer AI products such as ChatGPT and DALL-E, making him the face of the current AI boom in many ways — opened up about on the latest episode of Noah’s Spotify podcast “What Now?”

1. Altman was at the Las Vegas Grand Prix when he got fired.

In response to a question from Noah about where he was when he got the news that the OpenAI board had fired him, Altman said he was where a lot of rich, influential Californians were at the time: Las Vegas, for the Formula One Grand Prix.

“I never got to watch any race that whole weekend,” he told the host as the two sat around a simple wooden table in what they implied was OpenAI’s office. “I was in my hotel room, took this call, had no idea what it was gonna be, and got fired by the board.”

His phone started blowing up with messages to the point where iMessage stopped working, Altman added. Employees began quitting; Microsoft, a major investor in OpenAI, was calling people up.

Returning to OpenAI was not yet on his mind, Altman continued, but he knew he wanted to keep working on developing generalized artificial intelligence. He flew back to California and started contemplating his next move.

“It felt like a dream,” Altman said of the experience. “I was confused, it was chaotic. It did not feel real.”

2. He still has some hard feelings about the whole ordeal.

“This was a very painful thing and felt to me, personally, just as a human, super unfair — the way it was handled,” Altman said of his surprise sacking.

It’s still unclear why exactly the OpenAI board tried to push Altman out, although speculation has circled around possible disagreements over how quickly the firm should be trying to develop and commercialize advanced AI systems. Because of OpenAI’s structure, which holds the firm’s for-profit elements subservient to a nonprofit board, the firm does not hold money-making as its core objective. Instead, it aims to develop artificial intelligence for the betterment of all mankind.

The board sought to push out Altman quickly and with the benefit of surprise, subsequent reporting has revealed. But beyond an initial claim that he’s been inconsistently candid in his communications with them, the board has been tight-lipped about what motivated its attempted coup.

The Saturday morning after he got fired, Altman told Noah, “a couple of the board members called me and said, ‘Would you like to talk about coming back?’ ”

“I had really complicated feelings about that,” he added. “But it was very clarifying at the end of it to be like, ‘Yes, I do.’ ”

3. Altman got a firsthand look at what it’s like to lose your job.

In the closing minutes of the interview — which remained amiable for its hour and 15-minute run time — Noah made a friendly but pointed observation that Altman’s firing paralleled the job losses a lot of people fear his technology will bring about at a societal scale.

“Continue to remember that feeling you had when you were fired as you’re creating a technology that’s gonna put many people in a similar position,” Noah encouraged the chief executive.

“Y’know what I did Saturday morning — like early Saturday morning, when I couldn’t sleep?” responded Altman, seemingly referring to the day after his Friday dismissal. “I wrote down: ‘What can I learn about this that will help me be better when other people go through a similar thing and blame me like I’m blaming the board right now.’”

It made him more empathetic, he added.

4. Altman still believes in AI, despite its risks.

For all the boardroom drama of the last month, Altman remains enthusiastic about artificial intelligence — even as he cautions that it will come with downsides.

“This is gonna be a force to combat injustice in the world in a super important way,” he told Noah. “These systems will be — they won’t have the same deep flaws that all humans do. They will be able to be made to be far less racist, far less sexist, far less biased. They’ll be a force for economic justice in the world.”

But, his host asked, is it really possible to make AI completely safe? What is Altman’s nightmare scenario?

Safety is not a binary but a balance between risks and benefits, Altman said, pointing to society’s continued embrace of planes (despite occasional crashes) and pharmaceuticals (which still have side effects).

“But it doesn’t mean things aren’t gonna go really wrong,” he added. “I think things will go really wrong with AI. What we have to prevent” are existential risks, or the threat that AI could wipe out mankind in the same way nuclear arms might.

5. He had some kind words for Taylor Swift.

Altman was just named CEO of the Year by Time Magazine, missing out on the top spot to 2023 Person of the Year Taylor Swift.

But he doesn’t envy her for it, he told Noah.

“I have had more attention this year than I would have liked to have in my entire life,” he explained, and it has at times been tough on his personal life. He’s “happy for Taylor Swift.”

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