OpenAI revolutionised the tech world in the field of artificial intelligence. It was founded with the mission to ensure that AI benefits all of humanity. OpenAI has consistently pushed the frontiers of AI research and development. Renowned for creating cutting-edge language models like GPT-3 and GPT-4, OpenAI has showcased the immense potential of AI in natural language understanding and generation. In an unforeseen series of events, the board of directors of the company have fired their CEO Sam Altman.

After a review found that he was “not consistently candid in his communications” with the board of directors, the company decided to fire him yesterday. “The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” they said in a statement. The company further added that Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, will take over as interim CEO effective immediately. This firing incident took us back to that of Steve Jobs by the Apple board in 1985 who was later brought back in 1997. 

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Speaking of Altman’s reaction to this, the co-founder and CEO expressed his love for the time he spent at OpenAI and the impact it had. Moreover, he also mentioned his admiration for the talented people he worked with. He quickly rose to become Silicon Valley’s newest star and became a tech world sensation with the release of ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot with unprecedented capabilities, churning out human-level content like poems or artwork in just seconds.

Co-Founder Quits

Along with Sam, the OpenAI co-founder, president and board chairman Greg Brockman was removed from the board as well. Although he was told that he is vital to the company and can continue to serve as the company’s president and report to the CEO. This change was not explained in the statement. But, following Altman’s firing, Greg also decided to quit. He released a statement on X reminiscing the good times at OpenAI and hoping to create safe artificial general intelligence going ahead.

In a joint statement, released today morning, Greg and Sam mentioned how sad and shocked they were by this abrupt news broken by the board to them. That too on a Google Meet call from Ilya Sutskever just minutes before the public announcement… They are still trying to figure out what exactly happened that led the board to this irreverent decision. Given how dismal this news is, they are also overwhelmed by all the love and support they are receiving and are hopeful for better things heading their way.

Here’s Greg Brockman recounting the turn of events on the night of November 17, 2023.

OpenAI’s board consists of OpenAI’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, and three non-employees: Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Surprised reactions and speculations swirled as reports from news portal Semafor revealed that Altman was in the midst of raising funds for a new venture capital fund with a focus on hard tech at the time of his exit from the company. It further added that OpenAI’s founder had ‘no inkling that he would be pushed out of the firm he helped found‘.

The Tech World Reacts

After Sam’s exit, Satya Nadella reaffirmed Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI and their commitment to delivering the benefits of AI technology. Taking to X (formerly Twitter), the Microsoft CEO wrote, “We have a long-term agreement with OpenAI with full access to everything we need to deliver on our innovation agenda and an exciting product roadmap; and remain committed to our partnership, and to Mira and the team. Together, we will continue to deliver the meaningful benefits of this technology to the world.” Satya Nadella also reached out to Altman following the firing to offer him support in his next steps.

Former Google CEO and Chairman Eric Schmidt also praised Altman for building a company worth $90 billion and making a lasting impact on the world. In a post on X, he wrote, “Sam Altman is a hero of mine. He built a company from nothing to $90 Billion in value, and changed our collective world forever. I can’t wait to see what he does next. I, and billions of people, will benefit from his future work- it’s going to be simply incredible. Thank you

The outpouring is not surprising given the cult status Sam Altman held over the last year since the launch of ChatGPT. Airbnb’s Brian Chesky has hailed him as ‘one of the best founders of his generation’! In fact, the board’s move even surprised the AI firm’s top investors like Khosla Ventures, Sequoia and Thrive Capital, according to Forbes. They had zero knowledge. Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, said that his firm wanted Altman “back at OpenAI but will back him in whatever he does next.”

The structure of OpenAI with a non-profit board controlling a for-profit entity seems to have turned it into Altman’s Achilles Heel with some calling him a “victim of his own invention“. Tech journalist and host of the podcast Pivot, Kara Swisher wrote on X that there would be more departures of those at the top positions from OpenAI and Altman’s departure was due to a ‘misalignment of the profit versus nonprofit adherents at the company’. She wrote, “The developer day was an issue and how the store was introduced was an inflection moment of Altman pushing too far, too fast. My bet: He’ll have a new company up by Monday.

David Zhang – CEO & Co-Founder at Aomni seems to agree with Kara’s theory saying the reason for Sam’s firing is essentially the “move fast” mentality vs the current AI safety environment. “Looks like a board coup, caused by the conflict between acceleration-ists & safety-ists. Basically incentive alignment issue with having a non-profit govern a for-profit. File this under one of these management practices that sounds good in theory but never work in practice,” he wrote.

Netizens React

The internet has begun speculating the cause of OpenAI’s CEO’s firing. A Reddit user wrote, “I do have to assume the costs of running ChatGPT and the APIs are bigger than they can absorb, and that Sam has repeatedly lied about how it wasn’t that bad or how he could get it under control; turning off new signups must have alerted the board who looked under the hood and saw their company runs on burned money. If this is right, expect price raises.” And another user said they got this mail right after the news was out.

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An X user gave a detailed analysis of Sam Altman being fired given by GPT-4:

Another user wrote, “Gotta give it to Silicon Valley. The drama never stops.” Sam Altman called today’s day “a weird experience.” To him, it felt like “reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive.” He seems to be going off on the company as he wrote, “if i start going off, the openai board should go after me for the full value of my shares.” A thread on Reddit takes a humourous dig at the fact that ads may make their way onto GPT-4 now.

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New Developments

Sam Altman’s latest post on X hinted at his return to OpenAI. He posted a picture of him wearing a ‘Guest badge’ at the OpenAI office with the caption “first and last time i ever wear one of these.” Altman and Greg Brockman were invited to OpenAI’s San Francisco headquarters to negotiate a possible return to the company by Interim CEO Mira Murati following pressure from investors and the threat of a mass employee walkout. Altman had set a strict deadline of 5 pm Pacific Time for his return to the company, and one of his conditions was the removal of the existing board members who fired him as CEO.

In such a situation, the board may have to decide who will replace them. According to a Reuters report, Microsoft, which owns a 49% stake in OpenAI, is likely to take a role on the board if Altman returns to the company. The company, led by Satya Nadella, could either take a seat on the board or as a non-voting observer. In a twist that no one saw coming, the company’s nonprofit board went another way altogether and named former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear as OpenAI’s interim CEO.

That’s three CEOs in three days! Shear’s surprise appointment comes after OpenAI’s four-person board refused to step down and let Altman return. They cited that removing Altman was the “only path” to achieving the company’s mission of “broadly beneficial” artificial general intelligence. After a weekend of negotiations with the board of directors, company leaders and investors, Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI co-founder and board director, told the staff that Altman would not be coming back on Sunday night.

Does this dampen the speculation of Sam Altman being ousted for something sinister? Will OpenAI continue to thrive amidst this much turmoil during a dramatic leadership shakeup? We wait and watch as this tech drama continues to unfold.