How the chaos at ChatGPT maker OpenAI played out – why it matters and what might happen next | Science and technology news
In a shock sequence of corporate drama befitting Succession, Sam Altman — the public face of ChatGPT maker OpenAI — was suddenly forced out.
Not being “consistently honest in your communications” the charge was laid at his feet by the board.
Here’s what we know about what’s going on — and what might happen next.
Altman’s firing was announced Friday.
Coming just weeks after he had represented OpenAI at UK AI Safety Summitand just days after appearing at the company’s first conference for third-party developers, the timing was a shock.
The board is said to have “lost confidence” in him due to unspecified communication issues.
In this case, the board means just four people — including OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who reportedly became concerned that Altman was prioritizing the company’s growth over AI security.
Board members five and six — who were Mr. Altman himself and then-OpenAI president Greg Brockman — opposed the firing but were outvoted.
“I loved my time at OpenAI,” Mr Altman wrote on X when the news broke, describing it as “transformative”.
“Will have more to say about the next one later.”
The immediate fallout
OpenAI appointed Chief Technology Officer Mira Murati as interim CEO.
But when hundreds of employees voiced their displeasure over Altman’s firing, she tried to secure his stunning return to head off the revolt.
“OpenAI is nothing without its people,” wrote many contributors to X — including Ms. Murati herself.
Altman was reportedly keen on the idea of returning, with his brother Jack – also a start-up CEO, of HR firm Lattice – warning his detractors that they were “betting against the wrong guy”.
But by Sunday, Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman had joined the OpenAI investor Microsoft to lead an AI research team.
Bloomberg reports that the tech giant’s CEO Satya Nadella was “furious” and blindsided by the ouster.
OpenAI responded by hiring Emmett Shear, the former head of streaming site Twitch, as Mr Altman’s replacement.
But the sense of panic at OpenAI was evident when more than 500 employees signed a letter threatening to quit.
Nothing encapsulated the chaos more than Mr. Sutskever signing it, saying he “deeply regrets” the board’s decision.
Altman’s next move
Despite joining Microsoft, Mr. Altman has left the door open for a return to OpenAI.
The two companies were already close to each other, and the Windows manufacturer invested 10 billion. USD in it earlier this year and used its GPT technology to reinvent its Bing search engine and Office products.
According to tech news website The Verge, citing multiple sources, Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman are willing to return to OpenAI if the board members who staged the coup leave.
That could leave a few seats on the board for Microsoft executives.
Sir. Nadella may be aiming for that, telling CNBC “it’s very, very clear that something needs to change around governance”.
“We will have a good dialogue with their board about that,” he said.
Sir. Altman has suggested continued involvement with OpenAI in some capacity, writing, “We’re all going to be working together in one way or another, and I’m so excited.”
What happens next?
With Mr. Sutskever changing tack, it would only take another change of heart on OpenAI’s board to potentially pave the way for Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman to return.
But if they don’t, the duo will apparently continue their work at Microsoft instead – perhaps joined by hundreds of old colleagues in the coming weeks.
Either way, Mr Altman’s goal of building artificial general intelligence – which refers to super-powerful AI capable of outperforming humans in a range of tasks – will go nowhere.
Of course, some may wonder if Microsoft – not shy about a major acquisition – could simply buy OpenAI and bring the entire operation under one roof. It already owns a 49% stake.
However, the company will face extensive scrutiny from regulators, with the US, UK and EU all making it work extremely hard for its latest record purchase of 69 billion USD by gaming giant Activision Blizzard.
In the weeks before Mr. Altman’s firing, OpenAI had an estimated value of $80 billion.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shear, the new CEO, reportedly promised to hire an “independent investigator” to look into what led to Mr. Altman’s firing.
In an internal memo, seen by The Verge, he promised to “dig into the whole process” and “generate a full report”.
The executive, a former self-proclaimed AI “judge” who has warned of its existential threat to humanity, has claimed he has not been told why Mr Altman was fired.
Why the future of OpenAI matters
The San Francisco-based company has existed since 2015 and even then had some big names on its books, including Elon Musk.
He and Mr. Altman were the first people on the board to lead the company’s quest to develop “safe and beneficial” artificial general intelligence.
But it wasn’t until November 2022 that OpenAI was pushed into mainstream attention thanks to ChatGPTthat attracts more than 100 million users in a few months.
With AI tipped to have a similar transformative impact on the world as the industrial revolution, Mr Altman has rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful politicians as he looks to help shape potential regulation.
Sir. Altman has not been shy about warning about the risks of artificial intelligence, but is undoubtedly committed to pushing the boundaries and, perhaps more significantly to his exit, maximizing its commercial potential.
The OpenAI developer conference he appeared at before he was fired was about allowing third parties to leverage the company’s GPT technology in their products — even building their own digital assistants.
And in September, the Financial Times reported ex-Apple designer Jony Ive was in talks with OpenAI to build the “iPhone of AI”.
Such projects would go against OpenAI’s non-profit origins. The firm launched a profit-focused arm in 2019, but that didn’t sit well with some of its original investors — including Musk, who pulled out.
Replacing Mr. Altman with Mr. Shear, who previously said he is “in favor of slowing down” AI development, may be a sign that OpenAI is returning to its roots.
One thing that won’t slow down anytime soon is the drama surrounding Mr. Altman’s departure — a saga that not even ChatGPT could have written, and one that likely still has a few twists and turns to go.