Nov 22 (Reuters) – Ahead of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s four days in exile, several staff researchers sent the board of directors a letter warning of a powerful artificial intelligence discovery that they said could threaten humanity, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The previously unreported letter and AI algorithm was a key development ahead of the board’s ouster of Altman, the poster child of generative AI, the two sources said. Before his triumphant return late Tuesday, more than 700 employees had threatened to quit and join backer Microsoft (MSFT.O) in solidarity with their fired leader.
The sources cited the letter as one factor among a longer list of grievances by the board that led to Altman’s firing. Reuters was unable to review a copy of the letter. The researchers who wrote the letter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to one of the sources, long-time executive Mira Murati mentioned the project, called Q*, to employees on Wednesday and said that a letter was sent to the board prior to this weekend’s events.
After the story was published, an OpenAI spokesperson said Murati told employees what media were about to report, but she did not comment on the accuracy of the reporting.
The maker of ChatGPT had made progress on Q* (pronounced Q-Star), which some internally believe could be a breakthrough in the startup’s search for superintelligence, also known as artificial general intelligence (AGI), one of the people told Reuters. OpenAI defines AGI as AI systems that are smarter than humans.
Given vast computing resources, the new model was able to solve certain mathematical problems, the person said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the company. Though only performing math on the level of grade-school students, acing such tests made researchers very optimistic about Q*’s future success, the source said.
Reuters could not independently verify the capabilities of Q* claimed by the researchers.
Researchers consider math to be a frontier of generative AI development. Currently, generative AI is good at writing and language translation by statistically predicting the next word, and answers to the same question can vary widely. But conquering the ability to do math — where there is only one right answer — implies AI would have greater reasoning capabilities resembling human intelligence. This could be applied to novel scientific research, for instance, AI researchers believe.
Unlike a calculator that can solve a limited number of operations, AGI can generalize, learn and comprehend.
In their letter to the board, researchers flagged AI’s prowess and potential danger, the sources said without specifying the exact safety concerns noted in the letter. There has long been discussion among computer scientists about the danger posed by superintelligent machines, for instance if they might decide that the destruction of humanity was in their interest.
Against this backdrop, Altman led efforts to make ChatGPT one of the fastest growing software applications in history and drew investment – and computing resources – necessary from Microsoft to get closer to superintelligence, or AGI.
In addition to announcing a slew of new tools in a demonstration this month, Altman last week teased at a gathering of world leaders in San Francisco that he believed AGI was in sight.
“Four times now in the history of OpenAI, the most recent time was just in the last couple weeks, I’ve gotten to be in the room, when we sort of push the veil of ignorance back and the frontier of discovery forward, and getting to do that is the professional honor of a lifetime,” he said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
A day later, the board fired Altman.
Anna Tong and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco and Krystal Hu in New York; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker
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Anna Tong is a correspondent for Reuters based in San Francisco, where she reports on the technology industry. She joined Reuters in 2023 after working at the San Francisco Standard as a data editor. Tong previously worked at technology startups as a product manager and at Google where she worked in user insights and helped run a call center. Tong graduated from Harvard University.
Jeffrey Dastin is a correspondent for Reuters based in San Francisco, where he reports on the technology industry and artificial intelligence. He joined Reuters in 2014, originally writing about airlines and travel from the New York bureau. Dastin graduated from Yale University with a degree in history.
He was part of a team that examined lobbying by Amazon.com around the world, for which he won a SOPA Award in 2022.
Krystal reports on venture capital and startups for Reuters. She covers Silicon Valley and beyond through the lens of money and characters, with a focus on growth-stage startups, tech investments and AI. She has previously covered M&A for Reuters, breaking stories on Trump’s SPAC and Elon Musk’s Twitter financing. Previously, she reported on Amazon for Yahoo Finance, and her investigation of the company’s retail practice was cited by lawmakers in Congress. Krystal started a career in journalism by writing about tech and politics in China. She has a master’s degree from New York University, and enjoys a scoop of Matcha ice cream as much as getting a scoop at work.