OpenAI, Sam Altman, Timnit Gebru

‘What If Sam Altman Was A Black Woman’ Debate About Bias In AI Engulfs Twitter

Sam Altman’s ouster from OpenAI was compared to Google's firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru.

Following Sam Altman’s ouster from OpenAI and subsequent return to cull the board prompted many, according to Business Insider, to compare Altman’s exit and return to the firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru, former co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team. Gebru’s exit from Google was precipitated by a research paper she coauthored warning the company about racial bias it was building into its AI programming. 

Gebru and several other Black women were profiled in August by Rolling Stone, describing their efforts to warn the technology industry about the dangers artificial intelligence posed.

Gebru, unlike Altman, was not supported by Google employees to the extent that he was supported by OpenAI’s employees who threatened to quit. There was no mass exodus of employees, no threat to destroy the company, and no job at Microsoft for Gebru to seek refuge. Gebru herself weighed in on the debate on X, formerly known as Twitter, in a post, first quoting the title of an article before answering the question it posed: “What If Sam Altman Were A Black Woman? Tech Twitter Weighs In On The OpenAI Debacle.”

Gebru wrote, “I mean the dude who fired me was waxing poetic about the ‘small research community’ and empathy for his colleagues and stuff so we know the answer.”

More analogous to Altman is Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code. Bryant was ousted from the organization by her board in 2022 due to allegations of misconduct, but unlike Altman, she did not receive the outpouring of support he did. Bryant told TechCrunch, “Unlike Atlman, Black women founders rarely enjoy such overwhelming support, and the road to recovery after setbacks can be exceptionally challenging.”

Bryant added, “The absence of a Black or female counterpart for Altman in the tech industry reflects the persistent replication of the ‘successful CEO’ prototype, primarily shaped by the persona of the white male wonderboy.”

Shortly after OpenAI’s countercoup by Altman, OpenAI posted a picture of a workplace party to its official account, which prompted many X users to question the racial makeup of the company. The board has been purged of any semblance of diversity, now composed entirely of white men, which, compared to the company’s mission to create technology that “benefits all of humanity,” creates concern. 

 Dr. Émilie Torres, an AI philosopher/researcher, told Business Insider, “It’s a real shame because these people are mostly obsessed with and preoccupied with these very sci-fi kind of fantasies about how AGI is going to usher in utopia or completely annihilate humanity. Lots of people are getting trampled in the march of so-called progress.”

Black tech workers, however, already feel concerned that AI will be used to replace them, and to them, that fear is not tied to fantasy but to how few of them hold positions in tech. In addition to this, Black people are disproportionately wrongfully arrested due to facial recognition technology in policing, a real-world application of the harms created by artificial intelligence. 

Myashia Hayes, a director at MediaJustice, a racial and economic justice nonprofit, told Business Insider, “It’s unsurprising that Black workers have greater anxiety and fear about being replaced in the workplace by AI than white workers,” Hayes said. “Historically, Black and brown workers tend to be the least protected and therefore most exploited for their labor — and that trend has carried over in the digital age.”

Hayes also said that the government needs to do more to rein in companies and build guardrails to protect people from technology companies.

“It is insufficient to relegate the responsibility of protecting Black workers from the harms of AI to businesses alone,” Hayes said. “We need governments to be bold enough to slow down the rollout of these technologies until the adequate protections and guardrails exist that will protect Black workers and everyone else in our society.”

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