Open AI CEO Sam Altman participates in a discussion entitled “Charting the Path Forward: The Future of Artificial Intelligence” during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit on Nov. 16, 2023, in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg, Associated Press
After the world of artificial intelligence development was rocked by news Friday that the board of ChatGPT creator OpenAI had ousted company co-founder and AI figurehead Sam Altman, the industry was further roiled by Microsoft’s Sunday announcement that it had hired Altman to head up a new, but as yet undisclosed, AI-focused business endeavor.
OpenAI has risen as a de facto leader in AI development thanks to its successes in creating new AI-driven tools including ChatGPT, a platform that leverages generative AI processes to produce surprisingly human-like responses to user queries and directions.
Along the way, Altman has become a global spokesperson, and technology interpreter, for both the potential benefits and hazards of digital artificial intelligence advancements, including testimony before U.S. and international policymakers who are racing to create regulatory safeguards for fast-evolving AI technology.
Following a meeting on Friday, the OpenAI board said it had determined that Altman had not been candid in his communications with the company body and had voted to remove him from his top position.
“The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” the artificial intelligence company said in a statement.
In response to the firing, Altman’s fellow OpenAI co-founder and board chairman Greg Brockman shared a memo on social media announcing “based on today’s news, i quit.” In the wake of the abrupt personnel changes, Brockman was also hired by Microsoft to work with Altman on the company’s new AI effort, though details of that project have not yet been shared by Microsoft.
Altman’s ousting appears to have fomented revolt among OpenAI’s almost 800 employees, and by early Monday, over 700 had reportedly signed a letter to the company’s board demanding their collective and immediate resignations.
“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.”
OpenAI employees also threatened to resign and move, en masse, to Microsoft to go to work for Altman on the new AI research project if the current OpenAI board remains in place.
“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI,” the employee letter reads. “We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgement and care for our mission and employees. We, the undersigned, may choose to resign from OpenAI and join the newly announced Microsoft subsidiary run by Sam Altman and Greg Brockman.”
We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners. We look forward to getting to know Emmett…
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) November 20, 2023
Microsoft is closely connected with OpenAI, having invested some $13 billion in the company since it was founded in 2015. Microsoft has incorporated OpenAI developments into a myriad of its products, including its Bing search engine and the popular Word, Excel and Powerpoint programs.
In a Monday newsletter, CB Insights co-founder and CEO Anand Sanwal called Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s move to hire Altman and Brockman a “ninja-level move” and suggested that Microsoft’s other AI-centric investments, in areas including AI-based computing, synthetic gaming and human-computer interface technology, could portend the kind of work the two former OpenAI executives will be pursuing in their new Microsoft roles.
So Microsoft acqui-hired OpenAI?
TBH, Satya Nadella and $MSFT have been aggressively betting on generative AI beyond OpenAI for a bit
— Anand Sanwal (@asanwal) November 20, 2023
For now, OpenAI appears to be trying to move forward in the midst of furor over Altman’s termination, naming Emmet Shear, the co-founder and former CEO of Twitch, as interim CEO. Twitch is a popular video streaming service that specializes in video game play and esports broadcasts that was acquired by Amazon in 2014.
Shear has moved quickly to dismiss speculation that OpenAI’s board ousted Altman due to a spat over the safety of powerful AI models, according to a report from Reuters. Shear vowed to open an investigation into the firing, consider new governance for OpenAI and continue its path of making available technology like its viral chatbot.
“I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models,” Shear said. “OpenAI’s stability and success are too important to allow turmoil to disrupt them like this.”