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Sam Altman Is Ramping Up His EU Charm Offensive After an AI Regulation Hissy Fit

After threatening to leave Europe in a huff, OpenAI's CEO is looking to patch things up with regulators as the bloc mulls restrictions on AI.

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Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

Sam Altman wants to hit the reset button. The OpenAI CEO threw a small tantrum last week when it became apparent that the European Union planned to move ahead with a proposed law that would institute a broad regulatory framework to protect against the more disruptive impacts of artificial intelligence. While such regulations seem not only welcome but also totally necessary, Altman’s response was to threaten to pull his products out of Europe if the law went forward: “If we can comply, we will, and if we can’t, we’ll cease operating,” he said at a tech conference.

Now, however, Altman seems to be singing a different tune. Apparently deciding that pitching a fit isn’t the best way to get what he wants, the AI executive not only abruptly backtracked on his previous comments (in a tweet, Altman said his company was “excited to continue to operate [in Europe]...and of course have no plans to leave”) but is claiming that, actually, he loves Europe. In fact, he loves it so much that he says OpenAI definitely needs a headquarters there. “We really need an office in Europe,” Altman told Politico late last week. “We also just really want one.”


In short: instead of ditching the continent, Altman appears to be moving in.

Given recent events, that makes a whole lot of sense. Altman has been on a world-spanning roadtrip over the past few weeks, jetting from one country to the next in the hopes of getting governments to embrace a light-touch regulatory approach when it comes to ChatGPT and other generative AI. If you want to be a trailblazer in an AI “revolution,” it kinda helps to have everybody on the same page, right? As part of his schmooze campaign, Altman has claimed he’s in favor of AI regulations—and has even suggested that the U.S. Congress create a regulatory agency dedicated to it—but it’s a conversation that the tech mogul clearly wants to keep on his terms.


Europe isn’t the only pitstop on the OpenAI CEO’s charm tour, though it is a critically important one. Altman doesn’t just want a European office—he’s actually obligated to set one up. That’s because, under Europe’s proposed AI regulations, companies that want to offer AI services in the EU will need to have a presence there, Politico writes. The country that Altman picks as OpenAI’s European HQ will be the country that has direct oversight over how the company is regulated under the EU’s pending legislation.

Location scouting for the new office was also an opportunity to smooth things over with Europeans who may have been irked by Altman’s recent dismissive rhetoric. During an event in Paris last week, the ChatGPT creator told a crowd that he wasn’t serious when he said OpenAI might ditch Europe: “We plan to comply. We want to offer services in Europe,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re technically able to. And the conversations have been super-productive this week.”

At the same time that Altman is seeking to set up shop on the bloc, Reuters reports that the tech exec also has plans to meet with EU regulators next month—in the hopes of discussing how OpenAI will implement the EU’s proposed regulations. Altman is scheduled to meet with Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market of the European Union (economic competition agency), in San Francisco, where the two will discuss the regulations, as well as a voluntary “pact” that the EU is pushing on companies to adopt the regulations ahead of the new law’s enactment. Because the regulations that the EU has proposed could take up to three years to go into effect, both the U.S. and the EU are also said to be discussing a potential “code of conduct” that would be voluntary and would encourage companies to steer clear of using AI in majorly disruptive ways.

The meeting is a chance for both men to make nice after Altman’s hissy fit made things awkward last week. Indeed, after the tech CEO’s comments about pulling out of Europe, Breton notably commented that the proposed regulations were not up for debate. “Let’s be clear, our rules are put in place for the security and well-being of our citizens and this cannot be bargained,” Breton previously told Reuters after Altman made a stink.


What’s in the EU’s AI Act?

The European Union has been a trailblazer when it comes to regulating Big Tech, so it makes sense that it would also be at the forefront of regulating AI. From its passage of the privacy-protecting GDPR to a recent legislative package regulating cryptocurrencies, the EU is miles ahead of the U.S. and other western democracies when it comes to instituting limitations on Silicon Valley. Its recent AI draft policy, dubbed simply “the AI Act,” would similarly put forth some of the first rules regulating artificial intelligence. As it stands now, the AI Act would institute a number of new restrictions on how AI technology could be wielded.


Most pertinently for firms like OpenAI, the bill would potentially force them to disclose a full list of the copyrighted material that went into building generative models like the DALL-E image generator and ChatGPT. For obvious reasons, this could cause big—and, one might imagine, potentially catastrophic—impacts for the business model of such companies. That is to say, if OpenAI is shown to have used thousands of artists’ paintings to inform the algorithm powering its image generator, what are the chances that those artists are going to want some sort of compensation?

Altman can obviously smell the lawsuits from here and doesn’t want to go that route: “That sounds like a great thing to ask for,” Altman recently told Politico, of the bill’s copyright stipulation. “But — due to the way these datasets are collected and the fact people have been copying data in different ways on different websites — to say I have to legally warrant every piece of copyrighted content in there is not as easy as it sounds.”