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'Black Twitter' asks 'What if Sam Altman were a Black woman?' in the wake of ouster

Monica Melton,Aaron Mok   

'Black Twitter' asks 'What if Sam Altman were a Black woman?' in the wake of ouster
  • Sam Altman's high-profile firing has drawn comparisons to Timnit Gebru's exit from Google.
  • Gebru, a well-respected AI researcher, no longer works at Google after authoring a paper on biases in AI.

High-profile public firings in tech are nothing new. Sam Altman's shocking ouster— and reinstatement — to OpenAI drew comparisons to Steve Jobs's exit and eventual return to Apple. But a less obvious comparison has been drawn that asks the question: "What if Sam Altman was a Black Woman?"

That's what "Black Twitter" and tech observers have been wondering, pointing to another high-profile exit of a famous AI executive: Dr. Timnit Gebru, the former co-lead of Google's ethical AI team.

Gebru's departure from Google, which she described as being fired, resulted in a very different outcome than Altman, who was quickly offered a cushy job at Microsoft, fought for by a united workforce that threatened to walk if he wasn't reinstated, and some of the people responsible for his firing removed from the board.

In 2020 Gebru's exit from Google centered around a research paper that was critical of biases being built into artificial intelligence. Some Googlers protested her departure, although not as unanimously as OpenAI employees supported Altman.
At the time, leaders at Google like Deepmind chief scientist Jeff Dean, attempted to defend Google's handling of the situation, and called Gebru's condition of wanting to learn the names of those who reviewed her research paper a "binary choice."

The outpouring of support for Altman resounded across the tech industry. Black women's experiences in corporate America however, and an underrepresentation in fields like technology, have led some Black tech workers to believe there's a double standard in how the outside world reacts to the ousting of white founders compared to Black founders.

Black women in tech

After Altman's departure from OpenAI was announced, tech workers — including figures like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt — went to X to express their shock and support for Altman. Dozens of OpenAI employees replied to Altman's X posts with heart emojis in what seemed like a digital demonstration of love for their former CEO.

The reaction to Altman's firing pales in comparison to Kimberly Bryant, a founder of Black Girls Code, who said that she received minimal support when got ousted by her board over alleged misconduct.

"Unlike Atlman, Black women founders rarely enjoy such overwhelming support, and the road to recovery after setbacks can be exceptionally challenging," Bryant told TechCrunch's Dominic-Madori Davis in a blog post. "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."

'People are getting trampled in the march of so-called progress'

In the hours following Altman's return as CEO of OpenAI a raucous party began as cofounder Greg Brockman posted to X "We're so back" with a picture of him and several smiling employees. This prompted several X users to assert that there are very few Black employees at OpenAI.

While the chaos sparked by the former board of OpenAI appears to be coming to a close, the people added to its new interim board, comprised entirely of white men, have already drawn criticism and could harken to a swift return to business as usual in which the white, male dominance of tech continues.

The issue lies in that OpenAI's mission to create tech that "benefits all of humanity" will continue to develop with key decision-makers who don't represent a variety of backgrounds and aren't currently a robust reflection of the humanity it purports to serve.

"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," Dr. Émile Torres, AI philosopher and researcher, told Insider.

Only some of humanity

Black tech workers hold more concern about being replaced by AI than their white counterparts as experts urge companies to grow with inclusivity and responsibility.

Real-world harms of AI technology, such as facial recognition used in policing, have disproportionately led to the wrongful arrest of Black people.

Altman and the leaders of OpenAI fall into an ideology they and Dr. Gebru dubbed TESCREAL (transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and longtermism), which goes against the company's mission, according to Torres.

The class of ideologies that TESCREAL refers to including, effective altruism (EA) has been criticized for avoiding structural problems and overly centering Western and wealthy-centric views.

"All of these people, as far as I can tell, are cut from the same cloth. You can locate them within the general TESCREAL worldview," they said. "It's that worldview that is the greatest danger to human wellbeing. It's switching out players who disagree about the details, or certain aspects of the world view, isn't going to change much for most people."

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