Sam Altman suddenly fired; three CEOs in one w/e

While not exactly our normal beat, it’s hard to ignore the biggest tech news of the day: the OpenAI drama which saw CEO Sam Altman abruptly fired from the ChatGPT developer. This happened without notice, and for reasons we can guess but which were not stated.

Latest updates: Almost all of the company’s 770 staff have now threatened to quit unless the board resigns and reinstates Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, and it appears that their return to the company is now a strong possibility – more at the bottom …

OpenAI drama: Sam Altman’s sudden dismissal

OpenAI announced on Friday that four members of the company’s board had fired Altman – though it was phrased slightly more delicately.

The board of directors of OpenAI, Inc., the 501(c)(3) that acts as the overall governing body for all OpenAI activities, today announced that Sam Altman will depart as CEO and leave the board of directors. 

No clear reason was stated, and the wording of the ‘explanation’ was brutal.

Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.

That “not consistently candid” part led to speculation about some scandal, but it does not appear that this was the case.

At the same time, OpenAI chair Greg Brockman was stripped of his title, though asked to remain on the board. He was not informed of Altman’s dismissal until after it had happened – and resigned shortly afterwards. Other senior execs did the same.

Jakub Pachocki, the company’s director of research; Aleksander Madry, head of a team evaluating potential risks from AI, and Szymon Sidor, a seven-year researcher at the startup, told associates they had resigned

Major investors tried to get him reinstated

A number of tech luminaries expressed support for Altman, including former Google chief Eric Schmidt and Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky.

OpenAI investors were as shocked as anyone at the development, with many supporting his reinstatement. These included Sequoia Capital and Tiger Global, with Microsoft also said to be working behind the scenes to try to arrange Altman’s return to the company.

Speculation that this might be happening when Altman tweeted a photo of himself at OpenAI, wearing a guest badge and saying “First and last time I ever wear one of these.”

Three CEOs in one weekend

With Altman out, OpenAI said that the company’s CTO would take on the role on an interim basis.

Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, will serve as interim CEO, effective immediately.

A member of OpenAI’s leadership team for five years, Mira has played a critical role in OpenAI’s evolution into a global AI leader. She brings a unique skill set, understanding of the company’s values, operations, and business, and already leads the company’s research, product, and safety functions. Given her long tenure and close engagement with all aspects of the company, including her experience in AI governance and policy, the board believes she is uniquely qualified for the role and anticipates a seamless transition while it conducts a formal search for a permanent CEO.

That “formal search” didn’t take long, the company announcing on Sunday evening that it had hired Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear as CEO. Or, rather, another “interim” CEO – making him the third chief exec in three days.

Altman and Brockman hired by Microsoft

Both Altman and Brockman were then hired by Microsoft to work on AI initiatives, while the software giant says it continues to work with OpenAI.

Most OpenAI staff threaten to quit

Almost 500 employees of OpenAI signed an open letter threatening to quit unless the board resigns and re-appoints Altman and Brockman, reports Wired – a number now said to have reached 667.

OpenAI was in open revolt on Monday with 490 employees threatening to leave unless the board resigns and reinstates Sam Altman as CEO, along with cofounder and former president Greg Brockman. Altman was controversially fired by the board on Friday.

“The process through which you terminated Sam Altman and removed Greg Brockman from the board has jeopardized all of this work and undermined our mission and company” the letter reads. “Your conduct has made it clear you did not have the competence to oversee OpenAI.”

Remarkably, the letter’s signees include Ilya Sutskever, the company’s CTO, who has been blamed for coordinating the boardroom coup against Altman in the first place.

Shortly before the letter was released, Sutskever posted on X: “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.

The letter says Microsoft has said all would be offered jobs:

Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAl employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join. We will take this step imminently, unless all current board members resign, and the board appoints two new lead independent directors, such as Bret Taylor and Will Hurd, and reinstates Sam Altman and Greg Brockman.

So what happened?

Only the four OpenAI board members behind the decision know for sure, and they don’t seem very interested in telling people – not even their own senior staff.

But the general view appears to be that it was the culmination of conflict between the for-profit and not-for-profit sides of the enterprise, and the two very different attitudes each embodied.

Altman was more toward the move-fast-and-break-things school of thought, while the non-profit side was more concerned with the risks which AI might pose to humanity, and wanting to take a slow and cautious approach.

Ultimately, the board was specifically set up to be able to act independently of the commercial side, and to make decisions it believes right. The Financial Times spoke to some insiders, who say that while it’s not known what specifically triggered the move, this conflict is what is likely behind it.

Though it is still unclear what brought matters to a head, the crisis was triggered late on Thursday, when Sutskever told Altman the board wanted to talk to him at noon the following day. Only Mira Murati – the Albania-born chief technology officer and a close Altman lieutenant – was tipped off about the coming upheaval, since it would involve her stepping temporarily into the top job.

Joining Sutskever on the Friday video call, carried out over Google Meet, were the board’s three non-executives. One, Adam D’Angelo, co-founder of Quora and a former Facebook executive, was minor royalty in the Valley.

The others – safety researcher Helen Toner and tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley – were less well known. Both were adherents of effective altruism, an intellectual movement that has gained backing in tech circles and holds, among other things, that AI could pose one of the greatest threats to the longterm flourishing of humanity.

Negotiations for Altman’s return now taking place

With the vast majority of staff now threatening to leave the company, and join Microsoft instead, negotiations are said to be underway to find way to bring him back.

Altman tweeted:

Bloomberg reports “intense discussions.”

OpenAI said it’s in “intense discussions” to unify the company after another tumultuous day that saw most employees threaten to quit if Sam Altman doesn’t return as chief executive officer.

The Verge suggests that the main issue is a face-saving way for the board to step down.

Altman, former president Brockman, and the company’s investors are still trying to find a graceful exit for the board, say multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. The sources characterized the hiring announcement by Microsoft, which needed to have a resolution to the crisis before the stock market opened on Monday, as a “holding pattern.”

9to5Mac’s Take

This was an extraordinary development, most especially because it all appears to have happened so suddenly.

Just a couple of days earlier, Altman was speaking about the company’s future, and the rapid-fire announcement of one replacement CEO and then another over the course of one weekend makes it clear that this was not something which has been carefully planned.

It seems hard to imagine what specific incident was believed urgent enough to justify such precipitous and chaotic action. If we ever find out, put me down for two tickets to the movie premiere.

Right now, though, the smart money appears to be on the OpenAI team (minus the current board) remaining together, whether that’s at OpenAI or Microsoft. The former looks hopeful.

Images: Sam Altman and D koi/Unsplash

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