The Messy, Secretive Reality Behind OpenAI's Bid To Save the World

OpenAI has a glossy exterior. In the four short years of its existence, it has catapulted itself to a spot among the leading AI research labs in the world. Part of it is its consistency in producing headline-grabbing research. Part of it is its co-founders Elon Musk and legendary investor Sam Altman. But above all, OpenAI is lionized for its mission. Its goal is to be the first to create artificial general intelligence, or AGI – a machine with the learning and reasoning powers of a human mind. The purpose is not world domination, but rather, to ensure that the technology is developed safely and its benefits distributed evenly to the world. The implication is that AGI could easily run amok if its development is left to follow the path of least resistance. Narrow intelligence, the kind of clumsy AI that surrounds us today, has already served as an example. We now know that algorithms are biased and fragile; they can perpetrate great abuse and great deception; and the expense of developing and running them tends to concentrate their power in the hands of a few. By extrapolation, AGI could be catastrophic without the careful guidance of a benevolent shepherd.

OpenAI wants to be that shepherd, and it has carefully crafted its image to fit the bill. In a field dominated by wealthy corporations, it was founded as a nonprofit. Its charter – a document so sacred that employees’ pay is tied to how well they adhere to it – declares that OpenAI’s “primary fiduciary duty is to humanity.” This alluring narrative plays well with investors and the media, and in July Microsoft injected the lab with a fresh $1 billion. But a report on MIT Technology Review , for which it visited OpenAI’s office – and conducted nearly three dozen interviews with past and current employees, collaborators, friends, and other experts in the field – suggest a different picture. There is a misalignment between what the company publicly espouses and how it operates behind closed doors, the report said. Over time, it has allowed a fierce competitiveness and mounting pressure for ever more funding to erode its founding ideals of transparency, openness, and collaboration. Employees’ accounts suggest that OpenAI, for all its noble aspirations, is obsessed with maintaining secrecy, protecting its image, and retaining the loyalty of its employees.