The OpenAI Board Member Who Clashed With Sam Altman Shares Her Side
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The OpenAI Board Member Who Clashed With Sam Altman Shares Her Side

In an interview, AI academic Helen Toner explains her posture in OpenAI’s power struggle

Fri, Dec 8, 2023 8:47amGrey Clock 4 min

Helen Toner was a relatively unknown 31-year-old academic from Australia—until she became one of the four board members who fired Sam Altman from the artificial-intelligence company he co-founded.

Thrust into the spotlight during the ouster and eventual return of Altman as CEO of OpenAI last month, Toner has emerged as a symbol of tension between AI-safety advocates and those giving priority to technological progress.

Toner maintains that safety wasn’t the reason the board wanted to fire Altman. Rather, it was a lack of trust. On that basis, she said, dismissing him was consistent with the OpenAI board’s duty to ensure AI systems are built responsibly.

“Our goal in firing Sam was to strengthen OpenAI and make it more able to achieve its mission,” she said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Toner held on to that belief when, amid a revolt by employees over Altman’s firing, a lawyer for OpenAI said she could be in violation of her fiduciary duties if the board’s decision to fire him led the company to fall apart, Toner said.

“He was trying to claim that it would be illegal for us not to resign immediately, because if the company fell apart we would be in breach of our fiduciary duties,” she told the Journal. “But OpenAI is a very unusual organisation, and the nonprofit mission—to ensure AGI benefits all of humanity—comes first,” she said, referring to artificial general intelligence.

Ultimately, Toner and some other board members did resign, clearing the way for Altman’s return.

In the interview, Toner declined to provide specific details on why she and the three others voted to fire Altman from OpenAI. Before his ousting, Altman and Toner had clashed.

In October, Toner, who is director of strategy at a think tank in Washington, D.C., co-wrote a paper on AI safety. The paper said OpenAI’s launch of ChatGPT sparked a “sense of urgency inside major tech companies” that led them to fast-track AI products to keep up. It also said Anthropic, an OpenAI competitor, avoided “stoking the flames of AI hype” by waiting to release its chatbot.

After publication, Altman confronted Toner, saying she had harmed OpenAI by criticising the company so publicly. Then he went behind her back, people familiar with the situation said.

Altman approached other board members, trying to convince each to fire Toner. Later, some board members swapped notes on their individual discussions with Altman. The group concluded that in one discussion with a board member, Altman left a misleading perception that another member thought Toner should leave, the people said.

By this point, several of OpenAI’s then-directors already had concerns about Altman’s honesty, people familiar with their thinking said. His efforts to unseat Toner, parts of which were previously reported by the New Yorker, added to what those people said was a series of actions that slowly chipped away at their trust in Altman and led to his unexpected firing on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

The board members weren’t prepared for the fallout from their decision.

The members, including Toner, were taken aback by staffers’ apparent willingness to abandon the company without Altman at the helm and the extent to which the management team sided with the ousted CEO, according to people familiar with the matter.

Toner took her account on social-media platform X private during the height of the crisis.

At one point during the heated negotiations, a lawyer for OpenAI said the board’s decision to fire Altman could lead to the company’s collapse. “That would actually be consistent with the mission,” Toner replied at the time, startling some executives in the room.

In the interview, Toner said that comment was in response to what she took as an “intimidation tactic” by the lawyer. She says she was trying to convey that the continued existence of OpenAI isn’t, by definition, necessary for the nonprofit’s broader mission of creating artificial general intelligence that benefits humanity at large. A simultaneous concern of researchers is that AGI, an AI system that can do tasks better than most humans, could also cause harm.

“In this case, of course, we all worked very hard to ensure the company could continue succeeding,” she added.

OpenAI has an unusual structure where a nonprofit board, on which Toner served, oversees the work of a for-profit arm. The board’s mandate is to “humanity,” not investors.

In the interview, Toner didn’t answer questions about her interactions with Altman. She wouldn’t comment on whether she would have done anything differently but said she had good intentions.

Before he was reinstated, Altman offered to apologise for his behaviour toward Toner over her paper, according to people familiar with the matter. Ultimately, he returned to lead the company without following through on that gesture.

Toner is known in the AI-safety world for being a critical thinker who isn’t afraid to challenge commonly held beliefs.

Some of Altman’s backers, including OpenAI investor Vinod Khosla, publicly expressed derision specifically toward Toner and Tasha McCauley, another former OpenAI board member who voted to fire Altman and is connected to organisations that promote effective altruism.

“Fancy titles like ‘Director of Strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology’ can lead to a false sense of understanding of the complex process of entrepreneurial innovation,” Khosla wrote in an essay in tech-news publication the Information, referring to Toner and her current position.

“OpenAI’s board members’ religion of ‘effective altruism’ and its misapplication could have set back the world’s path to the tremendous benefits of artificial intelligence,” he wrote amid the power struggle.

Toner was previously an active member of the effective-altruism community, which is multifaceted but shares a belief in doing good in the world—even if that means simply making a lot of money and giving it to worthy recipients. In recent years, Toner has started distancing herself from the EA movement.

“Like any group, the community has changed quite a lot since 2014, as have I,” she said.

Toner graduated from the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2014 with a degree in chemical engineering and subsequently worked as a research analyst at a series of firms, including Open Philanthropy, a foundation that makes grants based on the effective-altruism philosophy.

In 2019, she spent nine months in Beijing studying its AI ecosystem. When she returned, Toner helped establish a research organization at Georgetown University, called the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, where she continues to work.

She succeeded her former manager from Open Philanthropy, Holden Karnofsky, on the OpenAI board in 2021 after he stepped down. His wife co-founded OpenAI rival Anthropic.

“Helen brings an understanding of the global AI landscape with an emphasis on safety, which is critical for our efforts and mission,” Altman said when she joined the board.

The new board members along with returning board member Adam D’Angelo offer a glimpse of the direction OpenAI might be headed. Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary, and Bret Taylor, former Salesforce co-CEO, appear to be more traditionally business-minded than Toner, McCauley and the third board member who was succeeded, Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist.

There are no longer any women on the board, though the company is expected to expand it in coming months.

“I think looking forward is the best path from here,” Toner said.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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New York Watch Auctions Record Uptick in Sales in the Face of Market Slowdown
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Luxury watch collectors showed ongoing strong demand for Patek Philippe, growing interest in modern watches and a preference for larger case sizes and leather straps at the June watch sales in New York, according to an analysis of the major auctions.

Independent and neo-vintage categories, meanwhile, experienced declines in total sales and average prices, said the report from  EveryWatch, a global online platform for watch information. Overall, the New York auctions achieved total sales of US$52.27 million, a 9.87% increase from the previous year, on the sale of 470 lots, reflecting a 37% increase in volume. Unsold rates ticked down a few points to 5.31%, according to the platform’s analysis.

EveryWatch gathered data from official auction results for sales held in New York from June 5 to 10 at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s. Limited to watch sales exclusively, each auction’s data was reviewed and compiled for several categories, including total lots, sales and sold rates, highest prices achieved, performance against estimates, sales trends in case materials and sizes as well as dial colors, and more. The resulting analysis provides a detailed overview of market trends and performance.

The Charles Frodsham Pocket watch sold at Phillips for $433,400.

“We still see a strong thirst for rare, interesting, and exceptional watches, modern and vintage alike, despite a little slow down in the market overall,” says Paul Altieri, founder and CEO of the California-based pre-owned online watch dealer, in an email. “The results show that there is still a lot of money floating around out there in the economy looking for quality assets.”

Patek Philippe came out on top with more than US$17.68 million on the sale of 122 lots. It also claimed the top lot: Sylvester Stallone’s Patek Philippe GrandMaster Chime 6300G-010, still in the sealed factory packaging, which sold at Sotheby’s for US$5.4 million, much to the dismay of the brand’s president, Thierry Stern . The London-based industry news website WatchPro estimates the flip made the actor as much as US$2 million in just a few years.

At Christie’s, the top lot was a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM56-02 AO Tourbillon Sapphire
Richard Mille

“As we have seen before and again in the recent Sotheby’s sale, provenance can really drive prices higher than market value with regards to the Sylvester Stallone Panerai watches and his standard Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1a offered,” Altieri says.

Patek Philippe claimed half of the top 10 lots, while Rolex and Richard Mille claimed two each, and Philippe Dufour claimed the No. 3 slot with a 1999 Duality, which sold at Phillips for about US$2.1 million.

“In-line with EveryWatch’s observation of the market’s strong preference for strap watches, the top lot of our auction was a Philippe Dufour Duality,” says Paul Boutros, Phillips’ deputy chairman and head of watches, Americas, in an email. “The only known example with two dials and hand sets, and presented on a leather strap, it achieved a result of over US$2 million—well above its high estimate of US$1.6 million.”

In all, four watches surpassed the US$1 million mark, down from seven in 2023. At Christie’s, the top lot was a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM56-02 AO Tourbillon Sapphire, the most expensive watch sold at Christie’s in New York. That sale also saw a Richard Mille Limited Edition RM52-01 CA-FQ Tourbillon Skull Model go for US$1.26 million to an online buyer.

Rolex expert Altieri was surprised one of the brand’s timepieces did not crack the US$1 million threshold but notes that a rare Rolex Daytona 6239 in yellow gold with a “Paul Newman John Player Special” dial came close at US$952,500 in the Phillips sale.

The Crown did rank second in terms of brand clout, achieving sales of US$8.95 million with 110 lots. However, both Patek Philippe and Rolex experienced a sales decline by 8.55% and 2.46%, respectively. The independent brand Richard Mille, with US$6.71 million in sales, marked a 912% increase from the previous year with 15 lots, up from 5 lots in 2023.

The results underscored recent reports of prices falling on the secondary market for specific coveted models from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet. The summary points out that five top models produced high sales but with a fall in average prices.

The Rolex Daytona topped the list with 42 appearances, averaging US$132,053, a 41% average price decrease. Patek Philippe’s Nautilus, with two of the top five watches, made 26 appearances with an average price of US$111,198, a 26% average price decrease. Patek Philippe’s Perpetual Calendar followed with 23 appearances and a US$231,877 average price, signifying a fall of 43%, and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak had 22 appearances and an average price of US$105,673, a 10% decrease. The Rolex Day Date is the only watch in the top five that tracks an increase in average price, which at US$72,459 clocked a 92% increase over last year.

In terms of categories, modern watches (2005 and newer) led the market with US$30 million in total sales from 226 lots, representing a 53.54% increase in sales and a 3.78% increase in average sales price over 2023. Vintage watches (pre-1985) logged a modest 6.22% increase in total sales and an 89.89% increase in total lots to 169.

However, the average price was down across vintage, independent, and neo-vintage (1990-2005) watches. Independent brands saw sales fall 24.10% to US$8.47 million and average prices falling 42.17%, while neo-vintage watches experienced the largest decline in sales and lots, with total sales falling 44.7% to US$8.25 million, and average sales price falling 35.73% to US$111,000.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

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