OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, has found itself in turmoil following the firing of its co-founder and now former CEO.
Sam Altman was pushed out by the board of directors last Friday and quickly scooped up by Microsoft to head up a new artificial-intelligence division.
Altman’s firing quickly led to the resignation of Greg Brockman as president, setting in motion an eventful weekend that saw OpenAI name new interim CEO, only to replace them with another individual later.
The story took another turn Monday with majority of employees threatening to quit unless the four-board members resign and Altman returns to the helm.
Here is what’s happening at OpenAI.
When it announced Altman’s firing, OpenAI said the board carried out a “deliberative review process” that found the 38-year-old was “not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”
The company added the board “no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”
Altman helped bring ChatGPT to global fame based on its ability to respond to questions and produce human-like text in a seemingly natural way. In the past year, he has become Silicon Valley’s most in-demand voice on the promise and potential dangers of AI.
Originally started as a nonprofit, and still governed as one, OpenAI’s stated mission is to safely build AI that is “generally smarter than humans.” However, debates have swirled around that goal and whether it conflicts with the company’s increasing commercial success.
The reason behind the board’s removal of Altman was not a “specific disagreement on safety,” nor does the board oppose commercialization of AI models, OpenAI interim CEO Emmett Shear said Monday.
Its four-person board as of Friday consisted of three independent directors holding no equity in OpenAI, as well as chief scientist Ilya Sutskever.
After his firing, Altman took to X, formerly known as Twitter, saying he “loved” his time at the company.
“It was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. Most of all I loved working with such talented people,” he said Friday.
That post would be the first of many following the events that would unfold in the wake of his departure.
Before Shear took the helm as interim CEO, Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, was briefly named to the post.
She took on the role immediately after Altman’s firing. OpenAI described her as playing 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,” it said Friday.
“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.”
However, her tenure didn’t last long. Shear was named interim CEO on Monday, and vowed to hire an independent investigator to look into Altman’s ouster, promising a written report within 30 days.
He said he also plans to reform the management and leadership team and “drive changes in the organization,” including “significant governance changes if necessary.”
It’s not clear why Murati was replaced, though she was among several employees Monday who tweeted: “OpenAI is nothing without its people.” Altman replied to many with heart emojis.
Microsoft, which has been a close partner of the company and invested billions of dollars in it, tapped Altman and Brockman to lead its new advanced AI research team after their departures.
By Monday, close to all of OpenAI’s more than 700 employees threatened to quit in a letter demanding the resignation of the board and reinstatement of Altman and Brockman, according to Reuters and The Associated Press, which had access to the letter. Global News has not viewed the letter in question.
According to the Associated Press, the letter alleged that after Altman’s firing, the company’s remaining executive team had recommended that the board resign and be replaced with a “qualified board” that could stabilize the company.
But the board resisted and said allowing OpenAI to be destroyed would be consistent with its mission, according to the letter as reported by The Associated Press.
The document was signed by employees including Sutskever, a board member who helped oust Altman.
“I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company,” he said Monday on X.
Hours later, Altman and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sought to quell fears of a collapse at OpenAI.
Altman wrote on X that his top priority “remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive” and said he was “committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers.”
How this was allowed to happen worries Viet Vu, manager of economic research with The Dais, a public policy and leadership think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“How is it that a single company was able to be important enough so that when a struggle between a board and a CEO takes place … that the entire world worries about it?” he told Global News Monday.
“How is it that governance at such an important company was set up such that no transparency and no process seem to have taken place in such a big decision? All of the detail on this massive, chaotic saga actually doesn’t matter: what matters is that it was allowed to happen in the first place and how governments, the company and everyone kind of just looked on as it was unfolding.”
Sarah Kreps, director of Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute, told The Associated Press on Monday that OpenAI’s future is now at risk with employees threatening to leave.
“If the architects and vision and brains behind these products have now left, the company will be a shell of what it once was,” Kreps said.
“All of that brain trust going to Microsoft will then mean that these impressive tools will be coming out of Microsoft. It will be hard to see OpenAI continue to thrive as a company.”
Will Knight, a senior writer for WIRED who covers artificial intelligence, said it’s unclear what the AI development landscape would look like if OpenAI employees follow through on their letter and quit.
“If everybody … ends up joining Microsoft’s new subsidiary, then Microsoft will have certainly come out very well. Then it looks like Google vs. Microsoft once again. There are a lot of people who do worry about the course that AI is taking and whether it should be just in the hands of these big companies,” he told Global News.
“Many people may end up joining other competitors or starting their own companies. A lot of those people are the top AI talent in the world and they’re in incredible demand, so it could have this effect of meaning more startups, more developments within that space.”
— with files from Global News’ Eric Sorensen, Reuters and The Associated Press