WTF, Assistant?

Here’s why the turmoil at OpenAI really matters.

Peter A. McKay
2 min readNov 19, 2023
OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman speaks onstage during 2019’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of TechCrunch via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

The power struggle that erupted Friday at OpenAI is as chaotic as any I have ever seen at any company. To use a word that’s become a personal favorite since the pandemic, we will not be able to unsee this anytime soon.

However the situation resolves over the next few days, the fact that it happened at all should remain crucial context through which we filter future developmens at OpenAI. The public and the press should treat this company with a much higher degree of skepticism going forward, and demand greater accountability and transparency.

The board and CEO, whoever they are when the dust settles, will inevitably make statements putting a happy face on the whole ruckus, because that is what multibillion-dollar companies do. They will spin it as just a big misunderstanding, you see. But now it will all be settled, the employees will be in harmony, and we can all just merrily carry on as before.

Don’t buy it.

All this year, we’ve been told that widespread use of AI will be one of the biggest technological events in humankind’s history, with potentially massive benefits but also risks on par with those of nuclear weapons.

Well, we just got a closer peek at arguably the most influential people leading the charge on AI, including mitigation of those worst-case scenarios. The picture is not pretty, and that is really why this matters so much.

A useful comparison: OpenAI has a valuation over $80 billion on the private market. If it were an S&P 500 company, that would put it roughly in the weight class of Schlumberger, CVS, and Progressive.

But we tend to discuss tech companies in a very different way than we would an oil driller, a drugstore chain, or an auto insurer, don’t we? That has to change.

Regarding their products, tech companies are of course very different than the examples from other industries. But regarding governance, they truly are not.

Tech companies are subject to exactly the same greed, careerism, and petty backstabbing as in any other business. And that in turn can profoundly affect how their innovations get integrated into real people’s lives.

Despite all its programming brilliance, OpenAI clearly has not solved that more banal corporate problem. Beware.

This post was adapted from my free email newsletter #Web3Weekly. To get the full version in your inbox every Sunday, including additional headlines about decentralization from around the internet, please subscribe here.

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Peter A. McKay

I publish #w3w, a newsletter about decentralization. Former Head of Content & Writer Development at Capsule Social. Other priors: WSJ, Washington Post, Vice.