Sam Altman and the veil of ignorance

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(This is not about Altman having been removed as CEO of OpenAI)

During the APEC forum on Thursday, Sam Altman has been cited to having said the following thing: "Four times now in the history of OpenAI—the most recent time was just in the last couple of weeks—I’ve gotten to be in the room when we push the veil of ignorance back and the frontier of discovery forward. And getting to do that is like the professional honor of a lifetime."

He meant that as an uplifting quote to describe how awesome his company and their achievements are.

I find it deeply worrying. Why?

The "veil of ignorance" (also known as the original position) is a thought experiment introduced by John Rawls, one of the leading American moral and political philosophers of the 20th century. The goal is to think about the fairness of a society or a social system without you knowing where in the system you end up: are you on top or at the bottom? What are your skills, your talents? Who are your friends? Do you have disabilities? What is your gender, your family history?

The whole point is to *not* push the veil of ignorance back, otherwise you'll create an unfair system. It is a good tool to think about the coming disruptions by AI technology.

The fact that he's using that specific term but is obviously entirely oblivious to its meaning tells us that there was a path that term took, probably from someone working on ethics to then-CEO Altman, and that someone didn't listen. The meaning was lost, and the beautiful phrase was entirely repurposed.

Given that's coming from the then-CEO of the company that claims and insists on, again and again (without substantial proof) that they are doing all this for the greater benefit of all humanity, that are, despite their name, increasingly closing their results, making public scrutiny increasingly difficult if not impossible - well, I find that worrying. The quote indicates that they have no idea about a basic tool towards evaluating fairness, even worse, have heard about it - but they have not listened or comprehended.


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