Whatever professional or interpersonal drama is underpinning the chaotic last few days at OpenAI, it sounds like the company's board might regret the mess they created by abruptly firing CEO Sam Altman on Friday, and an employee revolt at the company is ongoing.
While there was rumor over the weekend that OpenAI's board might have been talking to Sam Altman about undoing the surprise firing they announced Friday, that was all dashed by late Sunday night when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that he was hiring Altman and some of his colleagues instead.
That was followed by a 1 a.m. PT announcement from Emmet Shear, the former CEO of Twitch, saying on X/Twitter that he was accepting the role as the new CEO of OpenAI.
"I’m super excited to have you join as CEO of this new group, Sam, setting a new pace for innovation," Nadella said in a tweet. "We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to give founders and innovators space to build independent identities and cultures within Microsoft, including GitHub, Mojang Studios, and LinkedIn, and I’m looking forward to having you do the same."
the mission continues https://t.co/d1pHiFxcSe— Sam Altman (@sama) November 20, 2023
Today I got a call inviting me to consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to become the interim CEO of @OpenAI. After consulting with my family and reflecting on it for just a few hours, I accepted. I had recently resigned from my role as CEO of Twitch due to the birth of my…— Emmett Shear (@eshear) November 20, 2023
OpenAI cofounder Greg Brockman, who resigned within hours of Altman's firing, is said to be joining Altman at Microsoft, along with a team of Altman allies.
Brockman posted to X/Twitter, "We are going to build something new & it will be incredible."
Microsoft, which had been a major investor in OpenAI and has partnered with the company to build out AI in its Bing search engine, was among the investors who balked at the OpenAI board's decision on Friday and encouraged them to reverse it, according to reports.
Shear now faces the difficult task of leading a company out of this turmoil, after a group of 500 OpenAI employees signed a letter to the company's board urging them to reinstate Altman and threatening to quit en masse. Update: As the New York Times reports, around 700 of OpenAI's 770 employees have signed onto this letter, and they are all apparently threatening to go over to Microsoft.
"It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust," Shear said in his early Monday post. He vowed in his first 30 days at the company to "Hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report." And Shear said he would "Reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force to drive results for our customers."
Shear assured everyone that OpenAI's relationship with Microsoft would continue, but it certainly calls to question how much Microsoft will need OpenAI in the future if it has its own AI team led by Altman and Brockman.
One of the board members who may have been a key figure in Altman's ouster, OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, expressed regret in his own Monday morning tweet about the situation. "I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions," Sutskever writes. "I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company."
I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we've built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.— Ilya Sutskever (@ilyasut) November 20, 2023
It's not clear how much of OpenAI's executive team, or its other teams, will be decamping to Microsoft with Altman.
There also seemed to be some emotion on the part of CTO and board member Mira Murati, who was briefly named interim CEO starting Friday. As the Associated Press notes, Murati was among several OpenAI employees who tweeted the phrase, "OpenAI is nothing without its people," which received a heart reply from Altman.
The Atlantic delved into the "chaos" inside the company over the weekend, reporting that it dated back around a year, to the release of ChatGPT. At the heart of the turmoil was the speed at which ChatGPT and its progenitors, including the upcoming GPT5, were being developed and rolled out, and there are reportedly people within the company who believe that safety testing had been rushed and inadequate.
The firing of Altman, apparently, was a decision that came out of a rift within the company between those pushing for faster innovation and those pushing for caution around the development of overly powerful AIs. Altman has called himself a "centrist" in this debate, and Sutskever is reportedly on Team Caution.
The board only said that the ouster was due to the fact that Altman "was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities."
As a result of the shakeup, shares of Microsoft were on the rise Monday morning, surpassing an all-time high price and hitting $377.88 as of this writing.
Photo: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman looks on during the APEC CEO Summit at Moscone West on November 16, 2023 in San Francisco, California. The APEC summit is being held in San Francisco and runs through November 17. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)