As you may have heard by now, the board of OpenAI fired CEO and co-founder Sam Altman on Friday. That move surprised everyone at the company and everyone at Microsoft which has spent about $10 billion funding OpenAI since it was founded in 2015 by Altman, Elon Musk and several others. Hours after Altman was fired the company’s president, Greg Brockman, also announced he was quitting in solidarity with Altman.
When I wrote about the story Friday, no one involved would say what had prompted this. Altman is considered one of the leading figures in AI development, a field which is experiencing a huge boom right now. You don’t usually fire someone like that without a pretty good reason.
The board put out a press release which cryptically said that Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” Candid about what? Brockman put out a tweet Friday saying he and Altman didn’t really know what the firing was about which seemed even stranger.
One possible explanation was an ongoing battle within the larger AI industry between those focused on growth and those concerned about safety, i.e. accelerations vs. doomers.
At least two of the board members, Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, have ties to the Effective Altruism movement, a utilitarian-inspired group that has pushed for A.I. safety research and raised alarms that a powerful A.I. system could one day lead to human extinction…
Mr. Altman’s defenestration will almost certainly fuel the culture war in the A.I. industry between those who think A.I. should be allowed to move faster and those who think it should be slowed down to prevent potentially catastrophic harms.
This argument, sometimes referred to as one between “accelerationists” and “doomers,” has flared up in recent months as regulators have begun to circle the A.I. industry and the technology has become more powerful. Some prominent accelerationists have argued that big A.I. companies are lobbying for rules that could make it harder for small start-ups to compete with them. They have blamed safety advocates in the industry for inflating A.I.’s risks in order to entrench themselves.
By Saturday, OpenAI investors were demanding the company bring Altman back.
OpenAI’s investors are making efforts to bring back Sam Altman, the chief executive officer who was ousted Friday, the latest development in a fast-moving chain of events at the artificial-intelligence company behind ChatGPT.
Altman is thinking about returning but has told investors that if he does return, he wants a new board and governance structure, people familiar with the matter said. He has separately discussed starting a company that would bring on former OpenAI employees, including several who quit in protest over his ouster.
So just 24 hours after he was fired it seemed possible Altman might be returning and effectively demanding the board that fired him be ousted instead. There were discussions about this possibility at OpenAI on Sunday. Altman posted a photo of himself wearing a “guest” badge. (Whoever made the guy who was CEO two days earlier wear a guest badge seems like a real jerk.)
first and last time i ever wear one of these pic.twitter.com/u3iKwyWj0a
— Sam Altman (@sama) November 19, 2023
That meeting apparently didn’t go well because the board announced Sunday that Altman would not be returning. And then Microsoft made its own announcement. It would be hiring both Mr. Altman and Greg Brockman. The two men will now lead an advanced research lab at Microsoft basically doing the same thing as OpenAI only faster.
Microsoft said it was hiring Mr. Altman and Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president and a company co-founder who quit in solidarity with Mr. Altman. The two men will lead an advanced research lab at Microsoft…
At Microsoft, Satya Nadella, the tech giant’s chief executive, said that Mr. Altman would be chief executive of the new research lab, “setting a new pace for innovation,” in an apparent contrast at the OpenAI board’s desire for caution in developing A.I. technology. Mr. Nadella noted in a post to X, formerly known as Twitter, that Mr. Altman’s new group will operate as an independent entity within Microsoft.
Mr. Nadella left room for other unnamed colleagues who may join the two co-founders at Microsoft. “We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success,” he said.
This does make it sound as if the battle between accelerationists and doomers played a role in Altman’s firing. Also, Microsoft’s reference to other unnamed colleagues was not idle chatter. As of Monday morning, more than 500 staffers at OpenAI have threatened to quit and join Altman’s new lab at Microsoft unless the board that fired him resigns.
In a letter obtained by CNN, the more than 500 employees accused the OpenAI board of mishandling Altman’s firing, failing to provide sufficient evidence for claims that Altman had not been candid with the board, and “negotiating in bad faith” with the company’s executive leadership.
“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI,” wrote the employees. “We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgement and care for our mission and employees.”
The employees also warned that they would “imminently” follow Altman to Microsoft unless the board resigns and reinstates Altman and Greg Brockman, the former OpenAI president who was also removed by the board on Friday.
OpenAI only has about 700 employees so this is the bulk of the staff. And one of the 505 employees who signed that letter was Mira Murati, the woman the board installed as the new CEO on Friday. The board has since announced a replacement for her as CEO. Even more surprising, one of the board members who helped oust Altman on Friday also signed the letter threatening to quit and apologized.
Among the signatories is Mira Murati, who as recently as Friday had been named by the board as Altman’s interim successor, as well as Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s co-founder, chief scientist and board member who had been widely reported as having played a role in Altman’s dismissal. Murati’s promotion has since been superseded by the appointment of incoming interim CEO Emmett Shear, the 40-year-old co-founder of the livestreaming company Twitch.
On Monday, as news of the letter emerged, Sutskever posted an apology on X that acknowledged his contribution to the leadership crisis, which appeared to revolve around tensions between Altman and the board about the pace and scope of AI development.
Here’s Sutskever’s apology tweet.
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
And here’s the letter sent by the employees.
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) November 20, 2023
I can’t imagine the board is going to stay in place if the bulk of the employees are threatening to quit, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see who blinks first. Murati, who was very briefly the CEO, tweeted this. It’s probably not a good think if your hand-picked replacement for CEO is now leading a revolt against you.
OpenAI is nothing without its people
— Mira Murati (@miramurati) November 20, 2023
Finally, Elon Musk was one of the founders of OpenAI. He resigned a few years later. This morning he’s sounding a note of concern about Microsoft’s plans to accelerate development of the technology.
Microsoft Clippy might paperclip us all!
“Revenge of Clippy” is the irony maximizing outcome.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 20, 2023
Update: If you’ve ever seen one of those “Hitler learns about…” videos in which a scene from a film is redubbed with text about a current issue in the news, then you’ll get the idea behind this. Elon Musk just posted it (I have no idea who made it). I guess the takeaway is that Elon thinks the board that fired Sam Altman is a laughing stock.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 20, 2023