Thursday, July 25

Opinion | Sam Altman has returned to OpenAI. I have a question for him.

Podcaster and MIT scientist Lex Fridman, who has emerged as the tech world’s father confessor, expressed the range of emotional barrages I’ve encountered time and time again: “You sit, both proud, like a parent, but almost like proud and I’m afraid that this thing will be much smarter than me. I like both pride and sadness, almost like a feeling of melancholy, but ultimately joy.”

When I visited OpenAI headquarters in May, I found the culture quite impressive. Many of the people I interviewed had arrived when OpenAI was a nonprofit research lab, before the ChatGPT hype, when most of us had never heard of the company. “My parents didn’t really know what OpenAI did,” Joanne Jang, a product manager, told me, “and they were like, ‘Are you going to leave Google?’” Mark Chen, a researcher involved in creating the DALL-E 2 GUI tool, had a similar experience. “Before ChatGPT, my mom would call me about every week and say, ‘Hey, you know you can stop dawdling around and go work for Google or something.’” These people aren’t driven primarily by money.

Even after GPT made the news, being at OpenAI was like being in the eye of a hurricane. “It just seems a lot quieter than the rest of the world,” Jang told me. “From the first days, it felt more like a research lab, because we mainly only hired researchers,” Elena Chatziathanasiadou, a recruiter, told me. “And then, as we grew, it started to become apparent to everyone that progress would come from both engineering and research.”

I didn’t meet any tech bros there, or people who had the kind of “we’re changing the world” swagger that I probably would have if I were pioneering this technology. Diane Yoon, whose job title is vice president of people, told me, “The word I would use for this workforce is seriousness…seriousness.”

Usually, when I visit a tech company, as a journalist, I meet very few executives, and those I interview are ruthlessly on message. OpenAI just put out a sign-up sheet and people came to talk to me.