A tale of two Sams

After Sam Bankman-Fried proved to be a sociopathic fraudster and a massive embarrassment to EA, we did much soul-searching about what EAs did wrong, in failing to detect and denounce his sociopathic traits. We spent, collectively, thousands of hours ruminating about what we can do better, next time we encounter an unprincipled leader who acts like it’s OK to abuse and betray people to pursue their grandiose vision, who gets caught up in runaway greed for wealth and power, who violates core EA values, and who threatens the long-term flourishing of sentient beings.

Well, that time is now.

Sam Altman at OpenAI has been proving himself, again and again, in many different domains and issues, to be a manipulative, deceptive, unwise, and arrogant leader, driven by hubris to build AGI as fast as possible, with no serious concern about the extinction risks he’s imposing on us all.

We are all familiar with the recent controversies and scandals at OpenAI, from the boardroom coup, to the mass violations of intellectual property in training LLMs, to the collapse of the Superalignment Team, to the draconian Non-Disparagement Agreements, to the new Scarlett Johansson voice emulation scandal this week.

The evidence for Sam Altman being a Bad Actor seems, IMHO, at least as compelling as the evidence for Sam Bankman-Fried being a Bad Actor before the FTX collapse in Nov 2022. And the stakes are much, much higher for humanity (if not for EA’s reputation).

So what are we going to do about it?

Should we keep encouraging young talented EAs to go work in the AI industry, in the hopes that they can nudge the AI companies from the inside towards safe AGI alignment—despite the fact that many of them end up quitting, disillusioned and frustrated?

Should we keep making excuses for OpenAI, and Anthropic, and DeepMind, pursuing AGI at recklessly high speed, despite the fact that AI capabilities research is far out-pacing AI safety and alignment research?

Should we keep offering the public the hope that ‘AI alignment’ is a solvable problem, when we have no evidence that aligning AGIs with ‘human values’ would be any easier than aligning Palestinians with Israeli values, or aligning libertarian atheists with Russian Orthodox values—or even aligning Gen Z with Gen X values?

I don’t know. But if we feel any culpability or embarrassment about the SBF/​FTX debacle, I think we should do some hard thinking about how to deal with the OpenAI debacle.

Many of us work on AI safety, and are concerned about extinction risks. I worry that all of our efforts in these directions could be derailed by a failure to call out the second rich, influential, pseudo-EA, sociopathic Sam that we’ve learned about in the last two years. If OpenAI ‘succeeds’ in developing AGI within a few years, long before we have any idea how to control AGI, that could be game over for our species. Especially if Sam Altman and his supporters and sycophants are still running OpenAI.

[Epistemic note: I’ve written this hastily, bluntly, with emotion, because I think there’s some urgency to EA addressing these issues.]