Why the philosophical rift at OpenAI might become everyone’s problem

If you’ve been wondering what “EA” means as you’ve been reading about the Sam Altman/OpenAI saga or why those “e/acc” accounts on X are so riled up about it, now might be a good time to get up to speed.

Driving the news: Altman’s firing exemplified what some see as an ongoing battle between a pair of utilitarian philosophies becoming entrenched in the tech sector.

  • Effective altruism (or “EA”) preaches the virtue of “rational thinking” to determine actions, including technology to invest in, that will maximize societal good. AI’s potential for both good and harm has made developing it responsibly a big focus for the EA community.
  • That seems reasonable enough, but some “doomer” EA thinkers have faced criticism for being more worried about AI causing a Terminator-like apocalypse than immediate issues like privacy, copyright infringement and job loss.
  • Effective accelerationism (or “e/acc”) is the mirror image of EA: societal good will come from rapid innovation. Long-term benefits justify short-term consequences, and any oversight stands in the way of progress.
  • What was initially propelled by memes from accounts with names like “Beff Jezos” is now embraced (sometimes with “cult”-like conviction) by influential tech figures like Marc Andreessen and Y Combinator’s Garry Tan.

Catch-up: Altman and OpenAI’s other founders embraced responsible AI as their mission. Two now-former board members have ties to EA, while chief science officer Ilya Sutskever — who led Altman’s ouster — recently started a unit to curb “superintelligent” computers.

  • EA types were worried that Altman was advancing AI too fast and with too much of a focus on commercialization. Sources told Reuters that OpenAI’s board also received a staff letter about a discovery that could “threaten humanity,” which was a factor in firing Altman (another source told The Verge that wasn’t true).
  • Accelerationists, meanwhile, have embraced Altman due to a few online interactions with e/acc figures and because they feel he is on their side against the “doomers.”

Why it matters: People on both sides of the debate — including, as we’ve seen this week, ones with decision-making power — are becoming increasingly zealous and seeing mundane business activities as fights in a bigger culture war.

  • For example, e/acc types hailed Meta dissolving its responsible AI team as a victory for their cause instead of part of the company’s ongoing restructuring and generative AI investments.

Bottom line: Even if they don’t care about this, tech companies should be aware that their decisions might be seen by an increasingly vocal minority as a slight against their cause.