UN AI Conference: Sam Altman Tackles Future of the Technology

Sam Altman gave a talk at the UN AI conference.
Sam Altman gave a talk at the UN AI conference. Credit TechCrunch. CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons/TechCrunch

The UN telecommunications agency has kicked off its annual AI for Good conference, hoping to guide businesses, consumers, and governments on ways to tap the promise of the new technology but avoid its potential perils – with a talk by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

Sam Altman Speaks at UN AI Summit

Altman was a star speaker at the conference today (Thursday, May 30), addressing the annual gathering on how to tap the societal promise of artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

Altman did however spend some of his time at the UN conference fending off thorny but fair questions about governance and an AI voice controversy, as well as taking criticism from ousted board members. Altman’s appearance to talk about the benefits of AI comes as his company has been fighting a rising tide of concern about its business practices and how it handles AI safety.

He was one of the tech leaders present at the Geneva gathering as the two-day event hosts talks on AI applications for robotics, medicine, education, sustainable development, and more.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres also highlighted the transformative impact of artificial intelligence on education, healthcare, agriculture, and disaster management, emphasizing its positive contributions to society.

The newest bout of criticism leveled at OpenAI came after the company’s new product showcase earlier in May riled Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, who said she was shocked to hear ChatGPT’s voice sounding “eerily similar” to her own, despite having previously rejected Altman’s request that she lend her voice to the system.

Altman spoke at length about themes related to AI in an interview with Nicholas Thompson, editor of The Atlantic, but he avoided answering questions about a few sensitive topics, including his use of an actor’s voice that resembled Johansson’s.

“It’s not her voice. It’s not supposed to be. I’m sorry for the confusion. Clearly you think it is.” Altman said. “People are going to have different opinions about how much voices sound alike, but we don’t. It’s not her voice. And yeah, we don’t think it… not sure what else to say.”

Oversight for large AI companies like OpenAI has been an increasingly heated topic. Not long after the Johansson controversy, departing researcher Jan Leike said the company was letting safety “take a backseat to shiny products” and cited disagreements with top leaders that reached a “breaking point.”

Leike’s departure came just days after co-founder Ilya Sutskever quit. The two jointly led OpenAI’s “Superalignment” team, which focused on the organization’s founding mission to safely develop better-than-human AI known as artificial general intelligence. That team has now been disbanded and replaced with a different safety committee.

OpenAI has been riding a new wave of generative AI technology that burst into public view 18 months ago when it launched ChatGPT, an early standout among AI systems that churn out novel text, images, and videos based on a vast database of online writings, books, and other media. Other corporate titans and AI startups have since launched their versions of the technology.

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