Thomas MacaulaySenior reporter
Thomas is a senior reporter at TNW. He covers European tech, with a focus on deeptech, startups, and government policy. Thomas is a senior reporter at TNW. He covers European tech, with a focus on deeptech, startups, and government policy.
Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, really wants AI regulation. Truly, madly, deeply, he wants it. Because of safety and stuff. Unless, of course, it’s the type of regulation that he doesn’t want. If that’s the case, he’ll threaten to withdraw his services instead.
Altman issued the warning this week during a tour of European regulators. He said OpenAI could “cease operating” in the EU if it can’t comply with the bloc’s impending AI Act.
The 38-year-old is particularly worried about the plans for “high-risk” systems. Under the current proposals, OpenAI’s ChatGPT and GPT-4 models would both be designated high-risk, which would make them subject to extra obligations before entering the market.
Another thorny issue for OpenAI is the new rules for generative models. As it stands, the legislation will require generative AI companies to disclose any copyrighted material used to train their systems. This condition was added after an outcry from artists, who say their work is being scraped and monetised without their consent.
Altman, however, described the proposed AI Act as “over-regulating.”
“If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating… We will try. But there are technical limits to what’s possible,” he said, according to Time.
Altman’s response has been compared to a blackmail attempt by lawmakers. Propitiously, it’s an experience that they’ve withstood before.
Put up or shut up
OpenAI is far from the first tech firm to threaten regulators with a product withdrawal.
Google has threatened to pull its search engine from Australia. WhatsApp has threatened to block its service in the UK. Meta has threatened to shut down Facebook and Instagram in Europe on multiple occasions. Microsoft has even threatened to remove Windows from unruly US states. To date, none of the threats has been fulfilled.
In Altman’s case, the U-turn came just a day later.
“We are excited to continue to operate here and of course have no plans to leave,” he tweeted on Friday.
very productive week of conversations in europe about how to best regulate AI! we are excited to continue to operate here and of course have no plans to leave.
— Sam Altman (@sama) May 26, 2023
Altman is unlikely to be the last tech boss to backtrack on a warning to regulators. But the empty rhetoric is starting to sound like boys crying wolf.
If they want to be taken seriously, one of them should follow through on a threat — or just accept that Silicon Valley can’t always get what it wants.
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