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Emmett Shear, the new head of OpenAI: A ‘doomer’ who wants to curb artificial intelligence

Shear believes there is a high risk that AI will become self-aware, initiate a process of continuous self-improvement and end up destroying humanity. And now he leads the company behind ChatGPT

OpenAI IA Emmett Shear
Emmett Shear, CEO of OpenAI, in an image from 2022.Robin L Marshall (Getty Images)

Who is the right person to lead a prominent artificial intelligence (AI) company with Microsoft as its main partner? If you asked ChatGPT that question, it most certainly would not name someone who sees AI as a threat to humanity and who hates Microsoft. Yet, after the dismissal of Sam Altman, the independent directors of OpenAI have decided that the ideal candidate to replace him is Emmett Shea — a self-proclaimed doomer who believes that AI will bring about the apocalypse.

Shear, 40, belongs to the group of people who believe that there is a high risk that artificial intelligence will become self-aware, initiate a process of continuous self-improvement and end up destroying humanity. Something like the Terminator but without time travel. Thus, he is in favor of slowing down the development of AI to minimize the risks.

In a podcast interview last June, he explained his position. After saying that he is generally in favor of new technologies, he specified that he has a “very specific concern with AI.” Shear explained that artificial intelligence will gradually become capable of programming, designing microprocessors, and everything else needed to build artificial intelligence, thus entering a loop in which the technology will become capable of improving itself faster and faster. “That kind of intelligence is just an intrinsically very dangerous thing,” he said. “I know Eliezer [Yudkowsky, an AI safety activist] thinks we’re all doomed for sure. I buy his doom argument. I buy the chain and the logic. […] My probability of doom […] is between 5% and 50%. So there’s a wide spread,” he added.

Still, he said that he considers it terrifying: “That should cause you to shit your pants. It’s not just human-level extinction; extincting humans is bad enough. It’s like, potential destruction of all value in the light cone. Not just for us, but for any alien species caught in the wake of the explosion. It’s a universe-destroying bomb,” he added, comparing the risk of artificial intelligence to someone inventing a way to make nuclear bombs 10 times more powerful with just sand and lye.

OpenAI’s new CEO has spent his entire career at Twitch, the social video network. A gifted computer scientist, he founded Justin.tv with classmate Justin Kan — a company that evolved into Twitch. He helped transform a platform specializing in video game streaming into an entertainment giant, which Amazon bought for $970 million in 2014. He himself is a big video game fan: “The Twitch thing was because I really, really, really, really like Starcraft,” he said at a company conference about Activision Blizzard’s strategy game, according to Bloomberg. Hardly anyone streamed games back then. He ran Twitch until last March, when he decided to quit to devote time to his newborn son. The platform has been criticized for not being able to curb the sexism, sexism, racism and harassment experienced by many of its users via the site’s comments.

Sexism

Shear himself is not one to hold back on social media. On X (formerly Twitter), he’s spoken out against Microsoft, OpenAI’s main partner, customer and supplier. “When I was interning for Microsoft, every paycheck felt like I was getting the payment for a little chunk of my soul in the mail,” he tweeted in July. His posts have also served to expose him as sexist and misogynist. In August, prior to his appointment at OpenAI, Shear responded to a message about women advocating “free use” — consenting to always being sexually available to one’s partner —, claiming it is just “a BDSM non-consent/humiliation kink thing.” In another tweet, he added that “40-60% of women seem to have rape/non-consent fantasies,” citing a Wikipedia article.

The new interim head of OpenAI has been vocal in his support for decelerating the development of artificial intelligence: “I’m in favor of a slowdown. We can’t learn how to build a safe AI without experimenting, and we can’t experiment without progress, but we probably shouldn’t be barreling ahead at max speed either,” he tweeted just two months ago.

While it’s true that Shear is a peculiar choice for a company at the forefront of artificial intelligence, the decision to name him the new CEO fits with the thinking of the current independent directors who have taken over OpenAI. The three external directors have stated that allowing the company to be destroyed “would be consistent with the mission,” according to the letter in which the vast majority of OpenAI’s employees threatened to quit en masse if all the current board members do not resign. Shear is linked to the effective altruism movement, as are two of the independent directors who now run OpenAI. That movement has strong reservations about advanced artificial intelligence.

Unlike Altman’s dismissal, OpenAI has not publicly announced Shear’s appointment. Therefore, the company has not explained its reasons for choosing Shear nor why his position will be temporary. OpenAI announced his appointment through an internal memo, and it was Shear himself who made it public on X: “Today I got a call inviting me to consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to become the interim CEO of @OpenAI. After consulting with my family and reflecting on it for just a few hours, I accepted,” he wrote.

“I had recently resigned from my role as CEO of Twitch due to the birth of my now 9-month-old son. Spending time with him has been every bit as rewarding as I thought it would be, and I was happily avoiding full time employment. I took this job because I believe that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence. When the board shared the situation and asked me to take the role, I did not make the decision lightly. Ultimately, I felt that I had a duty to help if I could,” he added in his very long message.

The company’s future is up in the air

“I have nothing but respect for what Sam and the entire OpenAI team have built. It’s not just an incredible research project and software product, but an incredible company. I’m here because I know that, and I want to do everything in my power to protect it and grow it further,” Shear affirmed in the post, which reads more like a mission statement.

Shear won’t have it easy. 95% percent of OpenAI’s employees have threatened to leave the company over the firing of Sam Altman. Microsoft has expressed its willingness to hire them all if necessary, but other tech companies have also made offers. This all leaves the future of the artificial intelligence company up in the air. Shear himself has made it a priority to investigate the circumstances of Altman’s dismissal and, according to Bloomberg, is willing to resign if there is no evidence of improper behavior on the part of his predecessor.

Curiously, when ChatGPT is asked who would make a good CEO for OpenAI, it lists its top five candidates as follows: Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk; Microsoft chief Satya Nadella; DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis; former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg; and Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng.

One alternative, of course, would be to place an artificial intelligence tool like ChatGPT at the helm of the company. But that’s Shear’s idea, not ours: “Most of the CEO job (and the majority of most executive jobs) are very automatable. There are of course the occasional key decisions you can’t replace,” he tweeted on the eve of Sam Altman’s firing.

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