A picture is worth a thousand words. Tech world’s Chief Executive Officers, Chief Technology Officers and Chief Information Officers know well the value of managing expressions on their faces. Alongside their ability to think fast, they also refine the poker face look: an expression that does not show what they are thinking or feeling, as the Cambridge English Dictionary describes it. This proves to be quite useful when they’re asked a question they either know nothing about or don’t want to really answer.

Mira Murati, interim CEO of OpenAI, (AFP)

Which brings us to OpenAI’s CTO Mira Murati. And Elon Musk’s car crash of an interview.

When the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern asked Murati (a week or so ago) about the specifics of data used to train Sora — a generative AI tool that was touted to be the next big thing for its ability to generate movie-esque videos from text prompts as per the demos made available — Murati, expectedly had a clear answer. “Publicly available data and licensed data,” she said. Does that mean videos on YouTube, Instagram or Facebook, for instance?

We got a meme-worthy expression at this time, betraying Murati’s discomfort, who seemed unsure of what to say. Did a thousand different potential tweets and headlines flash before her eyes? “I’m actually not sure,” she replied. If they were publicly available to use, there might be that data to train Sora. As a CTO of an AI company, with the backdrop of their latest AI tool, you’d expect her to have an answer. Or perhaps, we’re being over-critical. Imagine, if Murati had given a similarly vague answer but with a poker face.

Other tech bosses have done it countless times in the past.

Elon Musk’s interview, earlier this month, was supposed to flag off “The Don Lemon Show” on X, part of its plans to make more profound forays into the video format. The “free speech absolutist” not only seemed to lose his patience with certain questions (content moderation and hate speech on the platform), but the fallout was also profound — the partnership was cancelled. There may well have been other behind-the-scenes factors.

When I saw the full Murati interview, I found myself drawing parallels to X CEO Linda Yaccarino’s Code Conference interview last year with the astute Julia Boorstin. Whatever your opinion of X (erstwhile Twitter) as a platform may be, with its policies evolving under Musk’s leadership, Yaccarino’s often vague answers arrived with a combination of composure and an undeniable poker face. If not for that combination, you would probably remember even today, prime management-speak in the form of “Forget the other platforms, at any other company on Earth, there is no analogue for the book that is being written.”

In January, when a US Senate Judiciary Committee summoned the CEOs of social media platforms including TikTok, Snap, Meta, X to testify on each tech company’s failure to protect children on their platforms, the CEOs knew the value of the optics: Intense, stony expressions, bordering on something you may classify as apologetic.

Mark Zuckerberg apologised, but the news online media focused on was the lack of any immediate plan to launch a kids version of Instagram. Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel offered condolences to parents whose children were believed to have obtained deadly illegal drugs via the platform. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew pointed out how keeping teens safe online requires a collaborative effort and collective action.

They knew the drill. After all, social media executives being grilled by lawmakers is now an annual flogging event. As Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) pointed out, these hearings have been happening for years, but nothing’s changed. Do we care? The consistency of optics means we forget about the issue at hand, and soon enough after the hearings are done, everyone’s gone home and turned the lights off.

It is the bare minimum to expect a CTO to know the specifics of how their AI model works. But the other side of the coin is Murati’s honesty. Let’s keep in mind tech executives who often give us an elaborate spiel that when unpacked, doesn’t mean much. She could have been vague with management-speak, or pushed the boundaries of facts, but she wasn’t and she didn’t. Her answer should get some credit. Surely, she’ll be better prepared for curveball questions as well as the simpler ones, next time.

Tech executives who play on the front foot are forthcoming with their views and don’t shy away from saying they need more information about a specific topic before commenting on it. But they are few and far between. One of those rare ones is Xiaomi India president Muralikrishnan B. It is not easy for a smartphone brand as successful and with such scale (market share and value) to admit they made mistakes in how they approached the market dynamics, to admit that they’ll correct it and to promise that are ready for a long road of pain before hopefully reaching the earlier lofty heights of market share again.

I’ve noticed a similar forthcoming style with Canva’s CEO Melanie Perkins, MapmyIndia’s CEO Rohan Verma, and Colleen Novielli of Worldwide Mac Product Marketing at Apple. They look at the bigger picture, including the not-so-rosy parts. More than anything else, it is that perspective which adds to the conversation.

After embarrassing errors that Google’s image generator Gemini made, leading to its plug being yanked for diligent re-training, CEO Sundar Pichai will no doubt draw on the experience of handling that when he makes his next public appearance. He may well be asked why Google, despite no lack of capability or technology, is simply playing catch-up in the generative AI space. And a meme-worthy expression while searching for an answer to that question is, well, not the way to go.

Vishal Mathur is the technology editor for Hindustan Times. Tech Tonic is a weekly column that looks at the impact of personal technology on the way we live, and vice-versa. The views expressed are personal.


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