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

By MEGHAN BOBROWSKY
Fri, Dec 8, 2023 9:56amGrey 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 organization, 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 organisation 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.



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Platforms are paying less for popular posts, brands are pickier about partnerships and a possible TikTok ban looms

By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN
Wed, Jun 19, 2024 9 min

Many people dream of becoming social-media stars like YouTube’s MrBeast or TikTok’s Charli D’Amelio . But for most who pursue careers as content creators, just making ends meet is a lofty goal.

Clint Brantley has been a full-time creator for three years, posting videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch where he comments on news and trends related to the online game “Fortnite.” Despite having more than 400,000 followers, and posts that average 100,000 views, his income last year was less than the median annual pay for full-time U.S. workers in 2023—$58,084, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Clint Brantley, a full-time creator, draws an average of 100,000 views for his ‘Fortnite’-related videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 29-year-old is hesitant to commit to an apartment lease because the money he gets, mainly from online tips and sponsorship deals, arrives randomly and could vanish at any moment. For now, he’s living with his mom in Washington state.

“I’m vulnerable,” he says.

Earning a decent, reliable income as a social-media creator is a slog—and it’s getting harder. Platforms are doling out less money for popular posts and brands are being pickier about what they want out of sponsorship deals. The real possibility of TikTok potentially shutting down in 2025 is adding to creators’ anxiety over whether they can afford to stick with the job for the long haul.

Few overnight sensations

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe regularly post videos and photos to entertain or educate social-media users. About 50 million earn money from it, according to a 2023 report from Goldman Sachs . The investment bank expects the number of creator-earners to grow at an annual rate of 10% to 20% through 2028, crowding the field even further. The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for these creators, also known as influencers.

It can take months or years to earn money as a creator, often through a combination of direct revenue from social-media platforms, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and affiliate links. But those who stick with it eventually see some returns, surveys show. Creators say that’s because you can learn what kind of posts most resonate with an audience, which can lead to more followers and, in turn, more moneymaking opportunities.

But money doesn’t mean big bucks . Last year, 48% of creator-earners made $15,000 or less, according to NeoReach, an influencer marketing agency. Only 13% made more than $100,000.

The gap reflects multiple factors, including whether creators work full- or part-time, the kind of content they put out and when they started. People who jumped into the space during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns—and who focused on a niche such as fashion, investing or lifestyle hacks—say they benefited from the surge in social-media use during that time.

A small number of creators shot to fame, propelling the occupation to the top of career wish lists for many teens (and adults). But behind the scenes, creators say the job is gruelling. They need to constantly produce compelling posts or risk losing momentum. They spend their days planning, filming and editing posts while also working to make inroads with advertisers and interacting with fans.

“It is a lot more work than most people realise,” says Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Creators who make a living doing it have been at it for many years. Most are not overnight sensations.”

Like other self-employed professionals, creators don’t get paid time off, healthcare benefits, retirement contributions and other perks that companies typically provide for their workers. That reality, coupled with stubbornly high inflation and mortgage rates , is making it more difficult to get by as a creator.

Brantley works on editing a coming video. The online tips and sponsorship deals that make up his income can be erratic, so for now the 29-year-old continues to live with his mom in Spokane, Wash. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everything is more expensive, especially groceries,” says Jason Cooper of Mobile, Ala.

A few years ago, Cooper dreamed up a sassy sock puppet named Sock Cop, who cracks dad jokes in live and recorded videos for TikTok and Twitch. He currently makes $500 to $600 a month, almost entirely from tips.

He thinks he could probably haul in a lot more if he went full-time. But with no guarantee, the 37-year-old father doesn’t want to quit his marketing job and risk losing health coverage. He now spends a few hours in the evening and on weekends on Sock Cop. If he had more time, he would feel the need to constantly make videos.

“You’ve got to feed the beast,” says Cooper.

Shrinking platform payouts

TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund, which ran from 2020 to 2023, doled out money to eligible creators for posting to the platform. Others joined in. YouTube’s TikTok competitor, Shorts, allowed creators to earn anywhere from $100 to $10,000 a month with its temporary fund. Instagram’s Reels Play bonus program rewarded creators with fluctuating payouts. Snapchat ’s Spotlight rewards program gave $1 million a day to the platform’s top creators.

Today, the platforms have revamped or completely changed how they pay creators—doing away with their funds.

Qualifications for TikTok’s current rewards program include having an account with at least 10,000 followers with a minimum of 100,000 views in the past month. Instagram is currently testing a seasonal, invitation-only program that rewards creators for sharing Reels and photos.

YouTube debuted an ad-revenue share model last year, in which qualifying creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 10 million public Shorts views in the past 90 days receive 45% of revenue from ads that occur between posts. Snapchat has a program that gives creators who meet certain criteria, such as having at least 50,000 followers and 25 million monthly views, a portion of the ad revenue that appears between Stories. Its Spotlight program also continues to dole out money to creators.

Creators who opt into these programs or bonuses aren’t guaranteed a significant payday.

Yuval Ben-Hayun originally became popular on TikTok in 2020 because of his posts about the word-puzzle game Wordle. The 29-year-old New Yorker eventually expanded into linguistic and other education content, and by early 2023, was able to support himself and his bills of over $4,000 a month.

TikTok had closed its fund by then but was testing its creator rewards program. Ben-Hayun said in March he received about $200 to $400 per million views, and it’s steadily declined since then—even as his follower count reached 2.9 million.

The followers are still there, but the money isn’t. He recently hit a new low, receiving only $120 for a video with 10 million views.

Danisha Carter uses her phone and a ring light to create content for her TikTok channel, where she has 1.8 million followers. PHOTO: JESSICA PONS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Danisha Carter is frustrated that TikTok and other platforms sold the idea of content creation as a job, but later withdrew the financial incentives. Thanks to creators’ efforts, she says, consumers are now hooked on social feeds, bringing the platforms billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The 26-year-old has 1.8 million TikTok followers, and her posts about beauty and exercise, along with opinions on topics ranging from dating to online bullying, regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok has paid her a total of $12,000, Carter says. She sells merchandise for additional income, bringing in about $5,000 last year.

“Creators should be paid a fair percentage based on what the apps are making off creators,” says Carter. “There should be more transparency into how we’re paid, and it should be consistent.”

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment.

YouTube said it paid more than $70 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the past three years, and more than 25% of channels in the ad-revenue share model are now making money through it. “We remain committed to putting our full energy into what matters most for our creators, viewers and advertisers,” a spokeswoman said.

A future without TikTok?

Many creators and advertisers credit TikTok, which pioneered the short-form video genre, with driving stronger engagement than its industry peers. TikTok has gained more than 170 million users in the U.S. since its launch in 2016—including, Pew Research Center says, a third of American adults. They spend an average of 78 minutes a day on the app, according to market-intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok may not be available in the U.S. for much longer, at least not in its current form. In April, President Biden signed a bill into law that will force a sale or ban of the app by Jan. 19, 2025. U.S. lawmakers have expressed worries that TikTok poses a national security risk. TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has said it can’t and won’t sell its U.S. operations by the deadline.

ByteDance sued the U.S. government, alleging the new law violates its First Amendment rights. Several U.S. creators also sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments in September for both cases.

“To lose TikTok would be kind of devastating,” says Brandon Granberg , a 31-year-old creator from Bayville, N.J., known for interacting with strangers in public places in silly ways.

Granberg struggled for years to attract viewers on the app before one viral post two years ago took his follower count from 5,000 to more than one million. Recently he made $1,000 from a TikTok program that launched last year called TikTok Creative Challenge, which allows creators ​to earn money by making video ads for brands that don’t appear on their personal profiles. He also earned $2,800 for producing four TikTok videos promoting a website for people with foot fetishes. Granberg says he found it creepy, but did it because he needed the money.

While he hasn’t landed many other sponsored posts, he’s grown his income significantly by making marketing videos for small businesses over the past year. Most clients find Granberg on TikTok. “If it gets banned, it will definitely hurt me,” he says.

Changing tastes and algorithms

This year, U.S. social-media creators as a whole are expected to make $13.7 billion, according to Emarketer. The research firm projects the majority of that—$8.14 billion, or 59%—will come from brand sponsorships.

Advertisers have always led in compensating creators, paying out far more money than the social-media platforms and fans who buy merchandise or dole out tips. But these days, advertisers expect more from creators than just large followings, according to agency and talent representatives. They want to see evidence of strong engagement in the form of saved and shared posts, plus the demographics of creators’ audiences.

“Brands are looking at metrics that are far less predictable for creators and also very difficult to price yourself on,” says Sarah Peretz, a business-strategy consultant in Los Angeles who helps creators negotiate partnerships and deals with advertisers.

Some brands are more controlling than in the past, says Sarah Steele , a 34-year-old creator in Tulsa, Okla., who started making TikTok videos about being a working mom in 2020. “Now it’s, ‘We’re paying you and this is what we want you to say.’ ”

Earlier this year, Steele says an advertiser insisted she cite legal disclaimers in a series of sponsored Instagram posts. “It felt like I was reading off a teleprompter,” she says. “As a consumer it even turned me off to the brand a little bit.”

Creators, meanwhile, are having a tougher time attracting viewers, thanks to algorithm changes and other factors beyond their control. And while more advertisers are looking to partner with creators than in the past, “increased activity leads to increased competition,” says Peretz.

Another change is that advertisers now prefer to work with just a handful of creators on long-lasting deals rather than experiment with several on one-off projects, says Jess Hunichen, of Shine Talent Group.

Hunichen co-founded the talent-management agency in 2015, when TikTok didn’t exist and influencer marketing was still relatively new. Back then, an average deal size between an influencer and brand was usually below $1,000. Now, the average deal per campaign is around $10,000, she says.

Worth the hustle

Ronit Halmos of Los Angeles began making TikTok videos earlier this year that she describes as quick-reviews of restaurants, bars and more “with some sass and attitude.”

The 27-year-old, a full-time technology recruiter, recently landed her first advertiser deal. A kombucha brand asked her to make a 30-second post featuring her take on a line of flavors. Though it ended up getting less attention from viewers than her usual fare, she made $1,500 from about 30 minutes of work.

Tyler Haven , a 27-year-old traveling around the Pacific Northwest, charges $250 to $300 to make promotional videos that brands can post to their own social channels, and around $1,200 for posts that appear on either his Instagram account with more than 41,000 followers or his TikTok account with more than 10,000 followers.

Since January, he’s been posting videos documenting his “van-life” with his wife, Oak Haven: Their primary residence is a fully paid, fully decked-out 2004 Mercedes Sprinter T1N.

Haven said it’s been easy to grow his following organically. He believes it’s because his posts don’t depict some unattainable, picture-perfect life.

He quit his job in June to pursue full-time content creation.

“Even if I were to make $2,000 a month, which is absolutely nothing—that’s less than most people’s rent—I could live on that,” Haven says.

With the van fully paid off, the 27-year-old says he and his wife, Oak Haven, can get by with even a small income from his videos. PHOTO: TODD MEIER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL