OpenAI dissolves team focused on long-term AI risks, less than one year after announcing it

OpenAI has disbanded its team focused on the long-term risks of artificial intelligence just one year after the company announced the group, a person familiar with the situation confirmed to CNBC on Friday.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some of the team members are being reassigned to multiple other teams within the company.

The news comes days after both team leaders, OpenAI co-founder Ilya Sutskever and Jan Leike, announced their departures from the Microsoft-backed startup. Leike on Friday wrote that OpenAI’s “safety culture and processes have taken a backseat to shiny products.”

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, announced last year, has focused on “scientific and technical breakthroughs to steer and control AI systems much smarter than us.” At the time, OpenAI said it would commit 20% of its computing power to the initiative over four years.

OpenAI did not provide a comment and instead directed CNBC to co-founder and CEO Sam Altman’s recent post on X, where he shared that he was sad to see Leike leave and that the company had more work to do. On Saturday, OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman posted a statement attributed to both himself and Altman on X, asserting that the company has “raised awareness of the risks and opportunities of AGI so that the world can better prepare for it.”

News of the team’s dissolution was first reported by Wired.

Sutskever and Leike on Tuesday announced their departures on social media platform X, hours apart, but on Friday, Leike shared more details about why he left the startup.

“I joined because I thought OpenAI would be the best place in the world to do this research,” Leike wrote on X. “However, I have been disagreeing with OpenAI leadership about the company’s core priorities for quite some time, until we finally reached a breaking point.”

Leike wrote that he believes much more of the company’s bandwidth should be focused on security, monitoring, preparedness, safety and societal impact.

“These problems are quite hard to get right, and I am concerned we aren’t on a trajectory to get there,” he wrote. “Over the past few months my team has been sailing against the wind. Sometimes we were struggling for [computing resources] and it was getting harder and harder to get this crucial research done.”

Leike added that OpenAI must become a “safety-first AGI company.”

“Building smarter-than-human machines is an inherently dangerous endeavor,” he wrote. “OpenAI is shouldering an enormous responsibility on behalf of all of humanity. But over the past years, safety culture and processes have taken a backseat to shiny products.”

Leike did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The high-profile departures come months after OpenAI went through a leadership crisis involving Altman.

In November, OpenAI’s board ousted Altman, saying in a statement that Altman had not been “consistently candid in his communications with the board.”

The issue seemed to grow more complex each day, with The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reporting that Sutskever trained his focus on ensuring that artificial intelligence would not harm humans, while others, including Altman, were instead more eager to push ahead with delivering new technology.

Altman’s ouster prompted resignations or threats of resignations, including an open letter signed by virtually all of OpenAI’s employees, and uproar from investors, including Microsoft. Within a week, Altman was back at the company, and board members Helen Toner, Tasha McCauley and Ilya Sutskever, who had voted to oust Altman, were out. Sutskever stayed on staff at the time but no longer in his capacity as a board member. Adam D’Angelo, who had also voted to oust Altman, remained on the board.

When Altman was asked about Sutskever’s status on a Zoom call with reporters in March, he said there were no updates to share. “I love Ilya … I hope we work together for the rest of our careers, my career, whatever,” Altman said. “Nothing to announce today.”

On Tuesday, Altman shared his thoughts on Sutskever’s departure.

“This is very sad to me; Ilya is easily one of the greatest minds of our generation, a guiding light of our field, and a dear friend,” Altman wrote on X. “His brilliance and vision are well known; his warmth and compassion are less well known but no less important.” Altman said research director Jakub Pachocki, who has been at OpenAI since 2017, will replace Sutskever as chief scientist.

News of Sutskever’s and Leike’s departures, and the dissolution of the superalignment team, come days after OpenAI launched a new AI model and desktop version of ChatGPT, along with an updated user interface, the company’s latest effort to expand the use of its popular chatbot.

The update brings the GPT-4 model to everyone, including OpenAI’s free users, technology chief Mira Murati said Monday in a livestreamed event. She added that the new model, GPT-4o, is “much faster,” with improved capabilities in text, video and audio.

OpenAI said it eventually plans to allow users to video chat with ChatGPT. “This is the first time that we are really making a huge step forward when it comes to the ease of use,” Murati said.

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