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AI may have lost its poster boy in D.C.

A person holding a folder walks outside

Altman on Capitol Hill on Sept. 13. Photo: Tom Brenner for the Washington Post via Getty Images

OpenAI's ousting of Sam Altman, if it holds, could put lawmakers racing to regulate AI on notice.

Why it matters: Altman made his presence on Capitol Hill known to ensure that his view of the technology — optimistic yet wary of existential threats — was represented in regulatory discussions. That approach also aligned with OpenAI's business interests.

  • With his ouster, lawmakers and staff are reminded they can't rely too much on one person to shape the Hill's understanding of the tech.

The big picture: Personnel changes and board turmoil atop the country's leading AI companies are likely to further convince lawmakers that rules and regulations are necessary to make sure AI is safe, no matter who is at the helm.

  • In the wake of the ongoing OpenAI drama, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner told Axios he sees more need than ever "for Congress to establish some rules of the road when it comes to the risks posed by these technologies."

Microsoft hired Altman and former OpenAI president Greg Brockman to lead a new internal research unit after Altman was unexpectedly fired Friday and Brockman resigned. (On Monday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told the press that Altman may go back to OpenAI.)

  • Former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, who is known for being risk-averse and worried about fast-moving AI technology, is OpenAI's interim CEO.
  • OpenAI employees have threatened to quit and go to Microsoft in droves in one of the most tumultuous few days Silicon Valley has ever seen.

Catch up quick: Altman became CEO of OpenAI in 2019, but it wasn't until after the company publicly released ChatGPT in November 2022 that Congress woke up to the wide-ranging implications of generative and other advanced AI models and Altman's Washington — and global — blitz began in earnest.

  • Altman made his first public appearance on Capitol Hill at a Senate Judiciary hearing in May, after which he was lauded for calling on Congress to regulate his own industry.
  • He also attended Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's first AI insight forum in September.
  • OpenAI tapped DLA Piper this month for lobbying, per federal disclosures.

What they're saying: "Even if Sam Altman doesn't say a single thing differently now than he would have said in the past, his employer is Microsoft" and not OpenAI, taking away some of the competitive dynamics, Adam Conner, vice president of technology at the Center for American Progress, told Axios.

  • "It changes the way his message will be received," Conner said, "and cements concentration."

The intrigue: One Democratic staffer said that although Altman "set the tone" for regulating AI, his departure won't change their policymaking efforts.

  • "We write policy based on the products they're producing, not the shake-up of the leadership."
  • "Another company will come in and become the poster child," the staffer added, noting that it's been more than a year since ChatGPT's launch and policymakers are well down the road of AI regulation with or without Altman.

Context: Altman's ousting was reportedly due to disagreements over the pace of development and some thought he was pushing the company in a dangerous direction in terms of product development.

  • On Capitol Hill, Altman largely made a positive impression among lawmakers and staff during his more recent trips.

Yes, but: Specific policy proposals, such as licensing, have been scrutinized by some in Washington as an effort to entrench big players and cut off competition from startups without the resources for compliance.

  • And OpenAI's fears, voiced by Altman, of artificial general intelligence and existential threats rubbed some offices the wrong way, per discussions with Axios.
  • Some on the Hill saw it as a distraction from the more immediate dangers around algorithmic bias, discrimination and workforce issues.
  • "I've sort of become a villain for this, but this message of 'Regulate us, regulate the really capable models that have significant consequences but leave the rest of the industry alone' is just a hard message to get across," Altman said on Casey Newton and Kevin Roose's "Hard Fork" podcast shortly before his ouster.

Plus, there's always an antitrust angle: "I'm sure all of OpenAI's employees are very thankful than noncompetes are unenforceable in California," an FTC official who asked not to be named told Axios.

  • Investments Microsoft has made in OpenAI with Azure Cloud credits and its lock on much of OpenAI's intellectual property amount to "acquisition by another name," Steve Weber, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, told Axios.
  • "Microsoft is setting up the ultimate AI antitrust heist: a de facto acquisition of a company in which it previously had a minority stake," Weber said.
  • "The walled garden that Microsoft is trying to build is the enemy both of AI innovation and AI safety — and regulators should be paying very close attention to the alarming competition policy implications of such a move."

What's next: Shear, the current CEO, has pledged to do an investigation in his first 30 days into what exactly went down between Altman and the board.

  • Such an investigation needs to be made public, Conner said: "At the end of the day, [transparency is] what Congress, people in the administration, employees, investors and the public are really going to want."
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