AI safety advocates for the most part have taken an exclusively–and potentially excessively–friendly and cooperative approach with AI firms–and especially OpenAI. I am as guilty of this as anyone[1]–but after the OpenAI disaster, it is irresponsible not to update on what happened and the new situation. While it still makes sense to emphasize and prioritize friendliness and cooperation, it may be time to also adopt some of the lowercase “p” political advocacy tools used by other civil society organizations and groups.[2] 

As far as is known publicly, the OpenAI disaster began with Sam Altman attempting to purge the board of serious AI safety advocates and it ended with him successfully purging the board of serious AI safety advocates. (As well as him gaining folk hero status for his actions while AI safety advocacy was roundly defamed, humiliated, and shown to be powerless.) During the events in between, various stakeholders flexed their power to bring about this outcome. 

  • Sam Altman began implementing plans to gut OpenAI, first privately and then with the aid of Microsoft.
  • Satya Nadella and Microsoft began implementing a plan to defund and gut OpenAI.
  • Employees–and especially those with an opportunity to cash out their equity—threatened to resign en masse and go to Microsoft–risking the existence of OpenAI.
  • Various prominent individuals used their platforms to exert pressure and spin up social media campaigns–especially on Twitter.
  • Social media campaigns on Twitter exercised populist power to severely criticize and, in some cases, harass the safety advocates on the board. (And AI safety advocacy and advocates more broadly.)

If there is reason to believe that AI will not be safe by default–and there is–AI safety advocates need to have the ability to exercise some influence over actions of major actors–especially labs. We bet tens of millions of dollars and nearly a decade of ingratiating ourselves to OpenAI (and avoiding otherwise valuable actions for fear they may be seen as hostile) in the belief that board seats could provide this influence. We were wrong and wrong in a way that blew up in our faces terribly.

It is important that we not overreact and alienate groups and people we need to be able to work with, but it is also important that we demonstrate that we are–like Sam, Satya, OpenAI’s employees, prominent individuals, social media campaigns, and most civil society groups everywhere–a constituency that has lowercase “p” power and a place at the negotiating table for major decisions. (You will note, these other parties are brought to the table not despite their willingness to exercise some amount of coercive power, but at least in part because of it.)

I believe the first move in implementing a more typical civil society advocacy approach is to push back in a measured way against OpenAI–or better yet Sam Altman. The comment section below might be a good location to brainstorm. 

Some tentative ideas:

  • An open letter–with prominent signatories, but also open for signatures from thousands of others–raising concerns about Sam’s well-documented scheming and deception to remove AI safety advocates from OpenAI’s board of directors and his betrayal of OpenAI, its mission, and his own alleged values[3], in his subsequent attempt to destroy OpenAI as a personal vendetta for being let go in response. This is the type of thing FLI is excellent at championing. I could imagine Scott Alexander successfully doing this as well.  
  • A serious deep dive into the long list of allegations of misconduct by Sam at OpenAI and elsewhere to write up and publish. Something like the recent Nonlinear post–but focused at Sam–would likely have far, far higher EV. Alternatively, a donor could hire a professional firm to do this. (If someone is interested in funding this but is low on time, please DM me, I’d be happy to manage such a project.)
  • Capital “P” political pressure. AI safety advocates might consider nudging various actors in government to subject OpenAI and Microsoft to more scrutiny. Given the existing distrust of OpenAI and similar firms in DC, it might not take much to do this. With OpenAI’s sudden and shocking purge of its oversight mechanism, it makes sense to potentially bring in some new eyes that are not as easily removed by malfeasance.[4] 
  • Interpersonal social pressure. Here is the list of OpenAI signatories who demanded the board step down–while threatening to gut and destroy OpenAI–without waiting to learn the reason for the board’s actions. If the CEO of ExxonMobil had an undisclosed conflict with the company’s internal environmental oversight board, and I had a friend who publicly threatened to resign if the environmental board was not fired–while not knowing the reason for the conflict–it would badly undermine my confidence in the morality of my friend. I know many people at OpenAI who signed this letter, and though it is awkward, I intend to have a gentle but probing conversation with each of them. Much like with advocacy, I don’t intend to push hard enough to harm our long-term relationship. Social pressure is one of the most powerful tools civil society actors can yield. 

AI safety advocates are good at hugboxing. We should lean into this strength and continue to prioritize hugboxing. But we can’t only hugbox. This is too important to get right for us to hide in our comfort zone while more skilled, serious political actors take over the space and purge AI safety mechanisms and advocates.

  1. ^

    My job involves serving as a friendly face of AI safety. Accordingly, I am in a bad position to unilaterally take a strong public stand. I imagine many others are in a similar position. However, with social cover, I believe the amount of pressure we could exert on firms would snowball as more of us could deanonymize.

  2. ^

    Our interactions with firms are like iterated games. Having the ability and willingness to tit for tat is likely necessary to secure–or re-secure–some amount of cooperation.

  3. ^
  4. ^

    This could also reestablish the value to firms of oversight boards, with real authority, and full of genuinely independent members. The genuine independence and commitment of AI safety advocates could again be seen as an asset and not just a liability.

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I’d think very carefully before pursuing this. Sam is a very experienced political player and two quite senior EA's just got outplayed. In many worlds, I expect our attempts backfire. Don’t pursue this unless you have good reason to believe that you can compete on his level. Otherwise, I'd suggest picking easier fights first.

Also, some of these don't really seem like gentle pushback, but actually rather aggressive. Maybe we should be aggressive, but if so, we should own it.

They got outplayed in the context of the internal politics of OpenAI, where there were A LOT of people with profit (Microsoft) or career (the employees) incentives to race ahead. But there seems to be an emerging public consensus in favor of more regulation, so I would expect that e.g. smart, ambitious politicians have quite different incentives. 

Thanks for this provocative and timely post. 

I agree that EAs have been far too friendly to AI companies, too eager to get hired within these companies as internal AI safety experts, too willing to give money to support their in-house safety work, and too wary about upsetting AI leaders and developers. 

This has diluted our warnings about extinction risks from AI. I've noticed that on social media like X, ordinary folks get very confused about EA attitudes towards AI. If we really think AI is extraordinarily dangerous, why would we be working with AI companies to advance capabilities, safety-wash their advances, and serve as their PR props to convince the public that they're being cautious and responsible? 

If rapid AI development is really an extinction risk, and EAs want to minimize extinction risks, it's puzzling that we would see the AI industry as our allies rather than our enemies. 

We've talked a lot over the years about the benefits of 'engagement' with the AI industry, 'being in the room' when they make decisions, having insider tracks to monitor and nudge their safety policies, etc. But, as this post points out, the OpenAI debacle might mark the end of that era. The voices for AI safety at OpenAI were decisively pushed out, in favor of maximum-speed commercialization and AGI development.

So, I think EAs need a new strategy for AI safety that is more confrontational, more political, and savvier about the cynicism, greed, and power of the AI industry. My essay on moral stigmatization of AI outlined one possible path. There might be other viable strategies, such as those outlined in this post.

As I've said many times over the last year or so, it's time to stop playing nice with the AI industry. Especially since, following this recent OpenAI shakeup, they stopped playing nice with us.

Something like the recent Nonlinear post–but focused at Sam–would likely have far, far higher EV.

I felt really uncomfortable reading this

Not to frame everything as the nail my favorite hammer could plant, but I would suggest people to form themselves to conversational techniques (Deep Canvassing, Smart Politics and Street Epistemology). I think that classical argumentation is likely to have only very limited effects if not handled with extremely good rapport and on very long timespans.

Note that at least one person disagrees with me on this, but I think acting methodically is still better than doing so spontaneously.

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