How to talk about the OpenAI drama at Thanksgiving dinner

How to talk about the OpenAI drama at Thanksgiving dinner

You’ve just landed in Dayton, Ohio after a long, overnight journey from SFO. While you were waiting in Denver on a layover, you checked your phone to see the news: After almost a week of confusion and uncertainty, Sam Altman has been reinstated as CEO of OpenAI.

The good news is that the Slack workspace of the small tech startup you work at will stop getting flooded with memes, only some of which are actually good. Your colleagues may know how to code, but they don’t always have an eye for humor. As content as you are, living your Silicon Valley dreams, it’s always good to go home and get back to basics.

Mom: “Oh, my one and only child! I’m so glad you made it home! San Francisco is too far!”

You hug your mom and tell her how good it feels to be back. Your dad does that awkward bro hug thing where you sort of clasp hands and then pat each other on the back, because even though it’s totally normal to say that you love your father — the man who literally raised you and changed your diapers as a kid and coached your Little League team until you realized computer science was more interesting to you than baseball — you have been socialized as a man, and therefore, you are incapable of telling your father you love him.

Dad: “Busy week, eh? I saw that Sam Altman guy is back… what even happened there?”

There it is. You really don’t want to talk about it — startup life is rough and demanding, and as much as you love what you do, you really just want to spend a few days away from it all.

“Oh, yeah, I’ll tell you later, just let me put away my bags!” you say.

You walk upstairs to your childhood bedroom. There’s a “Big Bang Theory” poster, which makes you feel incredibly embarrassed, but you were in middle school when you bought it.

You head back downstairs and start chopping some vegetables to help out your dad, whose hands are covered in turkey innards. The doorbell rings, and suddenly, the whole family rolls in.

Uncle Steve: “Hey! Long time no see! Too good for us now that you’re out working at Facebook?”

You do the bro hug thing again, then clarify that you don’t work for Facebook, and actually the company is called Meta now anyway, but you’re actually really excited about the B2B SaaS company you’re working for, and —

Uncle Steve: “Oh yeah, that Elon Musk, he’s really something isn’t he? Changing the name of Facebook to Meta?”

You correct him that, actually, Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of Meta, but yes, Elon Musk did buy Twitter and change its name to X, and it’s been really crazy. Your college roommate, Pablo, got laid off last year and he was really bummed, and he did find his footing eventually, but at one point you even tried to get him a job at your B2B SaaS company, which is working on this really amazing —

Uncle Steve: “Right! That’s the Tesla guy! But that AI stuff, huh? What happened there?”

Here it comes. The OpenAI conversation.

Mercifully, your aunt interjects.

Aunt Carol: “Oh, Steve, it’s too early to talk shop! How’s life out there? Do you have a girlfriend?”

Somehow, your Aunt Carol found the only topic you want to talk about less than OpenAI. Startup life is so busy, and you’re pretty sure your Tinder Elo score is low since you barely open the app, and maybe that’s why you’re not getting many matches? So, you pivot.

“Yeah, the OpenAI stuff has been really crazy. They just randomly ousted the CEO Sam Altman out of nowhere, and no one knew why, and then the president also stepped down. Investors were furious, because suddenly this company that was supposed to make them crazy rich was in turmoil, and no one knew how long this whole ordeal would last. Microsoft has a huge stake in OpenAI, so they offered Sam and Greg jobs, but then almost everyone who works at OpenAI said that they’d quit if Sam wasn’t reinstated, so it’s just been a whirlwind… Oh, hey, isn’t the game on?”

You walk your aunt and uncle into the living room and turn on the TV. You’re not much of a football head, but you know enough to get by. When you first graduated college and worked in consulting, you used to study football scores to have something to talk about at networking events, and sure enough, that’s what landed you your current job at this really fascinating B2B SaaS startup which actually —

Uncle Steve: “Go Buckeyes!”

Your attention flicks back to football. As you learned in your summer session at Wharton, the best way to direct a conversation is to ask people questions about the things they like.

“I saw something about some buyout at Texas A&M, what happened there?”

Uncle Steve: “So, during half time, Texas A&M gets presented with this huge $165 million check from a donor, and the next day, guess what? They fire their coach, Jimbo Fisher, and give him $76 million to buy out his contract! Sounds like something that’d happen in your world, huh? By the way, I still don’t understand the whole OpenAI thing. They make that Chat GTX, right?”

Oh no. Like many things you learned in that Wharton summer program, your knowledge has backfired.

Your cousin Jennifer peels her eyes away from her phone and speaks for the first time.

Cousin Jennifer: “No, dad, it’s ChatGPT, and Kayla used it to write her college essays and she still got in.”

You excuse yourself to continue helping your parents prepare Thanksgiving dinner. As you peel potatoes — being careful to move the peeler away from you, rather than toward you — the doorbell rings again. It’s your Aunt Pat, who works at a medical billing company in Cleveland.

As you greet her and walk her to the family room, where the game is on, she tries to make small talk.

Aunt Pat: “Everyone at work is talking about AI! We use that Salesforce Einstein all the time. So, did OpenAI get a new CEO yet?” 

“Oh, um, Sam Altman is back now, but before that, they appointed Emmett Shear, who founded Twitch. That’s a livestream platform that Amazon owns, lots of people use it to stream video games and stuff. Yes, people like to watch other people play video games.”

Cousin Jennifer: “Yeah, my girlfriend is a VTuber.” 

You hope desperately that your aunts and uncles will take the obvious bait and ask Jennifer what the hell a VTuber is. That’d buy you some solid minutes of peace. And VTubers are way cooler than AI executives. But no one follows up on that. You’re about to ask if Jennifer’s girlfriend has a mocap setup, when —

Uncle Steve: “Wait, so does anyone really know what that Sam guy did wrong?”

“We still don’t know, but the COO Brad Lightcap said that most of the management team had no idea, and that this definitely wasn’t any sort of violation of security or financial standards. It’s possible that it all came down to ideology. Some people think that Sam is too aggressive about developing smarter AI as soon as possible, and in theory, OpenAI is supposed to be building AI responsibly, and maybe he was going too fast to be responsible? But then there’s this whole other faction that thinks we can’t slow down the inevitable, so everyone’s been fighting online about it. The official reason that the board gave was that he wasn’t being transparent with them, but that could really mean anything! Personally, I’m just glad they sorted everything out before Thanksgiving, so I can really relax and stop thinking about everything. Oh, I should go check if mom needs help with the casserole.”

They don’t take the hint.

Aunt Pat: “Don’t be silly, when we walked in, I saw the casserole was already out of the oven. So, what do you think of all this AI stuff? It certainly makes my job easier, but I don’t want it to take my job, if you know what I mean!”

“It’s hard to say at this point. For now, I think it’s hard for generative AI to replicate human creativity, but it can certainly automate tasks that would take humans longer to complete, which makes sense why it is so helpful for you at work. By the way, how is work?”

Aunt Pat: “Oh, it’s the holidays, I don’t want to talk about work. So, I hear there’s been a lot of layoffs out in the Bay, do you think your job is safe?”

“Yes, actually, I think what my company is working on is very groundbreaking, and innovation is the best job security. We’re a B2B SaaS startup and what makes us different is that –”

Aunt Pat: “Wait, wasn’t there something about the board structure that made this whole thing so confusing? What happened with the OpenAI board again?”

You smell the unmistakable scent of turkey coming out of the oven. You pull it together, knowing that in mere moments, your interrogation will be over.

“Uh, OpenAI is sort of a tax-exempt charity wrapped around a holding company that has a majority stake in OpenAI? It’s kind of confusing. But it’s sort of trying to be a charity and a for-profit tech giant at the same time, but the nonprofit arm had control of the for-profit arm, which made it possible to just randomly fire the CEO. This is really different from how companies like Meta operate, since Mark Zuckerberg owns so much of the company that it’s impossible for the board to fire him.”

Dad: “Dinner’s just about ready! Start making your way to the table!” 

Oh boy, dinner time! You take your time carrying out each dish to the table, minimizing the time that you’re alone with your relatives, who simply won’t stop asking you about OpenAI. As everyone gobbles down their plates, conversation slows, and finally, you can revel in the peace of coming home.

Uncle Steve keeps making “aaah” noises every time he sips his wine. You don’t think there’s anyway he can annoy you any more tonight, but hey, that’s family, right? Suddenly, he raises his eyebrows as though he’s just remembered something.

“So,” your uncle asks. “What’s the deal with that CZ fella?”

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