On Friday, OpenAI, the industry leading machine learning firm and creator of ChatGPT, ousted its co-founder and CEO Sam Altman. It was an unexpected move and the board expressed the reasons for its decision in extraordinary terms, saying it "no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading" after he had not been "consistently candid" with them. The news drove a frenzy of speculation in the tech world over the weekend, with Microsoft in particular (which has a multi-billion investment in OpenAI) said to have been blindsided by the move, amid speculation that Altman would be re-hired by the firm.
Well, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella decided to just cut out the middleman, and has announced that Microsoft has hired Altman to lead "a new advanced AI research team" though remains "committed to our partnership with OpenAI". Microsoft has also hired Greg Brockman, also an OpenAI co-founder and formerly the company's president, who was laid off alongside Altman.
For its part OpenAI has appointed ex-Twitch CEO Emmett Shear as its new CEO, who said he had "spent today drinking from the firehose as much as possible". Shear noted that "it’s clear that the process and communications around Sam [Altman]’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust."
Shear says he's commissioning an independent investigation and looking into management reforms, adding "I have nothing but respect for what Sam and the entire OpenAI team have built." On the specifics of Altman's firing, Shear says he looked into the reasoning: "The board did *not* remove Sam over any specific disagreement on safety, their reasoning was completely different from that. I'm not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models."
The reference to "safety" is addressing speculation that Altman had attempted to cover-up some sort of major data breach or flaw with OpenAI's software. The commercial aspect is one of the ongoing fights over OpenAI's nature: it was founded as a non-profit organisation in 2015, before establishing a capped for-profit arm in 2019, and several of its key figures disagree over where its focus should be.
Altman is not short of fans in Silicon Valley (former Google CEO Eric Schmidt called him "a hero of mine" when the news of his firing broke), and Satya Nadella has moved extremely quickly here: the guy was fired on Friday afternoon (and Microsoft's share price took a dip) and was hired before Monday morning. Nadella says Microsoft is going to "provide them with the resources needed", which leads to the next big concern for OpenAI: brain drain.
Responding to Nadella's post, Altman said simply "the mission continues", but it does so amidst an ongoing backlash from OpenAI employees. A huge number of current OpenAI employees are engaged in a social media protest that some believe indicates a mass exodus is imminent. All are sharing the sentence "OpenAI is nothing without its people", with many of these posts being re-circulated by Sam Altman with heart emojis. For Microsoft's AI division, anyway, it's meet the new boss, same as the old boss.