In a shocking sequence of corporate drama worthy of Succession, Sam Altman – the public face of ChatGPT creator OpenAI – was suddenly forced out.
Not being “always frank in your communications” was the accusation laid at his feet by the board.
Here’s what we know about what’s happening – and what could happen next.
Mr. Altman’s dismissal was announced Friday.
Just a few weeks after representing OpenAI at UK AI Security Summitand days after attending the company’s first conference for third-party developers, the timing came as a shock.
The board of directors reportedly “lost confidence” in him due to unspecified communication problems.
In this case, the board has just four people, including OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who was reportedly concerned that Altman was prioritizing the company’s growth over to AI security.
Board members five and six – who were Mr Altman himself and Greg Brockman, then chairman of OpenAI – opposed the dismissal but were outvoted.
“I loved my time at OpenAI,” Altman posted on X when the news broke, describing it as “transformative.”
“I’ll have more to say about the rest later.”
The immediate consequences
OpenAI has named CTO Mira Murati as interim CEO.
But as hundreds of employees made their displeasure with Altman’s dismissal known, she tried to secure his resounding return to stave off revolt.
“OpenAI is nothing without its collaborators,” many employees wrote together on X – including Ms. Murati herself.
Mr Altman was reportedly keen to return, with his brother Jack – also CEO of start-up HR company Lattice – warning his critics they were “betting against the wrong person”.
But by Sunday, Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman had joined investor OpenAI. Microsoft 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 boss of streaming site Twitch, to replace Mr. Altman.
But the sense of panic at OpenAI was evident, as more than 500 employees signed a letter threatening to resign.
Nothing sums up the chaos better than Mr. Sutskever’s signature, saying he “deeply regrets” the board’s decision.
Altman’s next move
Although he joined Microsoft, Mr. Altman left the door open to a return to OpenAI.
The two companies were already closely linked, with the Windows maker investing $10 billion in them earlier this year and using its GPT technology to reinventing your Bing search engine And Office Products.
According to technology news site 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.
This could leave some board seats for Microsoft executives.
Mr. Nadella may be aiming for this, telling CNBC “it’s very, very clear that something needs to change when it comes to governance.”
“We will have a good dialogue with their board on this,” he said.
Mr. Altman suggested continuing to be involved in OpenAI in some capacity, posting: “We’re all going to work together in some way, and I’m so excited.”
What is happening now?
With Mr. Sutskever having changed tactics, all it would take is one more change of heart on the OpenAI 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 – perhaps joined by hundreds of former colleagues over the coming weeks.
Either way, Mr. Altman’s goal of building artificial general intelligence — which refers to super-powerful AI capable of outperforming humans at a number of tasks — will come to nothing.
Of course, some may wonder if Microsoft – not shying away from a major acquisition – could simply buy OpenAI and bring the entire operation under one roof. It already holds a 49% stake.
The company would, however, face increased scrutiny from regulators, with the US, UK and EU all making it work extremely hard to its recent record $69 billion purchase of gaming giant Activision Blizzard.
In the weeks before Mr. Altman’s dismissal, OpenAI had an estimated value of $80 billion.
Meanwhile, Mr Shear, the new CEO, has reportedly promised to hire an “independent investigator” to look into what led to Mr Altman’s dismissal.
In an internal memo, seen by The Verge, he pledged to “dig deeper into the entire process” and “generate a comprehensive report.”
The executive, a self-described AI “doomer” who has warned of its existential threat to humanity, claimed he had not been informed of why Mr. Altman was fired.
Why the future of OpenAI matters
The San Francisco-based company has been around since 2015 and already had some big names on its books, including Elon Musk.
He and Mr. Altman were the first board members to guide the company’s quest to develop “safe and beneficial” artificial general intelligence.
But it wasn’t until November 2022 that OpenAI gained mainstream attention thanks to ChatGPTattracting over 100 million users in just a few months.
With AI expected to have a transformative impact on the world similar to that of the Industrial Revolution, Altman has rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful politicians as he seeks to help shape potential regulation.
Mr. Altman has not been shy about warning of the risks of AI, but he is undoubtedly determined to push the boundaries and, perhaps more importantly, maximize its commercial potential.
The OpenAI developer conference he attended before his firing was aimed at allowing third parties to leverage the company’s GPT technology in their products, or even create their own digital assistants.
And in September, the Financial Times reported Jony Ive, former Apple designer was in talks with OpenAI to build the “iPhone of AI.”
Such projects would run counter to OpenAI’s non-profit origins. The company launched a profit-focused arm in 2019, but it was not well received by some of its original investors, including Musk, who resigned.
Replacing Mr. Altman with Mr. Shear, who previously said he was “in favor of slowing down” AI development, could be a sign that OpenAI is about to return to its roots.
One thing that won’t slow down anytime soon is the drama surrounding Mr. Altman’s departure – a saga that even ChatGPT couldn’t have written, and which probably still has a few twists and turns to come.