What is a decel? The term that encapsulates the dueling ideologies in AI

The reason for Sam Altman’s exit from OpenAI company remains unclear (Eric Risberg/AP) (AP)
The reason for Sam Altman’s exit from OpenAI company remains unclear (Eric Risberg/AP) (AP)

As the world of artificial intelligence was rocked by the abrupt firing of OpenAI boss Sam Altman over the weekend, a new word began cropping up in numerous hot takes on Twitter, sorry, X.

Venture capitalists, investors, and technologists started speculating that Altman’s sudden ouster was a coup by the company’s “decel” movement.

Now, if you live outside of the Silicon Valley bubble, chances are you’ve probably never come across the term before. So, who or what exactly is a decel? Here’s what you need to know about the new word that has come to symbolise a schism at the heart of AI.

What is a decel?

“Decel” is used as a dismissive term for tech doomsayers by those who see themselves as members of the burgeoning E/Acc community. Yes, that’s another new term for those still following along.

E/Acc stands for effective accelerationism, a Silicon Valley doctrine embraced by tech investors including Marc Andreessen and Garry Tan. The term likely traces its roots back to Nick Land, a British philosopher who is viewed as the father of the broader accelerationism movement, according to Business Insider.

At its heart is the belief that in our current technological age, the powers of innovation and capitalism should be exploited to their extremes to drive radical social change - even at the cost of today’s social order.

Naturally, those seen as opposing technological progress are viewed as decels in this binary argument.

“Most decels probably wouldn’t explicitly think of themselves this way, but their attitudes and beliefs end up working in that direction,” wrote journalist Noah Smith in his Substack newsletter Noahpinion.  “The US as a whole is not yet a decel nation, but we have far more decels than is healthy.”

Why is it being used now?

On Friday, November 17, OpenAI sent shockwaves around the tech industry by announcing that it was parting ways with its co-founder and CEO Sam Altman. The 38-year-old was widely considered the face of the tech company and its viral chatbot ChatGPT.

As the fallout continued at OpenAI, with employees threatening a mutiny, Altman managed to land on his feet by snagging a high-level gig at Microsoft.

Because the details around his firing remain murky, a number of theories have started doing the rounds online. One of the most prominent views suggests that OpenAI is split into two camps: “accelerationists”, who want to usher in artificial general intelligence (basically a machine that can think like a human), and “decelerationists”, who worry about the existential risks to AI.

By this account, people like Elon Musk would sit squarely in the latter camp after he called for a pause on advanced AI systems due to their profound risks to humanity.

As the drama at OpenAI was ensuing, venture capitalist Andreessen tweeted “E/Acc” on Saturday afternoon. He also retweeted a thread by Matt Parlmer that may have been a swipe at OpenAI’s decision, as spotted by Fortune.

“Doomer people,” Parlmer wrote. “I hope you all recognize that you shot your shot with this ridiculous stunt and now everybody is ready to bounce you out of polite sane person company for quite some time.”

Parlmer’s post contained another reply from an account called “Beff Jezos — e/acc”, who writes a Substack newsletter on effective accelerationism.

“This was always their plan,” the post said. “Infiltrate. Subvert. Co-opt. They spent their one shot. Now no one will trust EAs [effective altruists] and Doomers ever again. Make sure your board is e/acc-friendly rather than EA-inclined, anons.”

Andreesen also previously published a 5,000-word screed on his VC fund’s a16z’s website. In it, he wrote: “We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.”