Sam Altman, the co-founder and former CEO of OpenAI, was fired by the board in a surprise move on Friday. Over the weekend, attempts to oust the board and reinstate himself were dashed — leaving Microsoft in a unique position to snatch up his tech talent.
On Friday, it was announced that Altman had apparently lost the confidence of OpenAI’s board for “not consistently candid” communications. Without warning, it fired the 38-year-old and appointed interim CEO Mira Murati.
“We are grateful for Sam’s many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI. At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward,” the OpenAI announcement read.
Following the news, Altman described the turn of events as “sorta like reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive.”
According to multiple anonymous sources, the board and Altman disagreed on AI safety, the speed at which to rollout new tech, and the commercialization of the company. However, OpenAI COO Brad Lightcap dismissed the rumors.
“We can say definitively that the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices. This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board,” Lightcap said in a staff memo.
OpenAI board withstands mass pushback to firing Sam Altman
The board’s coup was apparently led by co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever. But threats of a mass employee walkout and pressure from investors forced him and the board to reconsider their decision — along with immediate resignations by senior researchers and co-founder and president Greg Brockman.
Over the weekend, Altman was spotted visiting OpenAI’s offices to negotiate the terms of his return. He and Brockman demanded that all board members hand in their resignations and reinstate the co-founders.
The all-or-nothing proposition came with time to mull it over. But a Saturday 5pm deadline was missed; then another on Sunday.
By Sunday evening, the OpenAI board told employees they were here to stay — and Altman wasn’t coming back. As first reported by The Information, board members told staff a change-up in management was a necessary evil; the “only path” to “broadly beneficial” artificial general intelligence.
What’s more, interim CEO Mira Murati would be immediately replaced with Twitch co-founder and former CEO Emmett Shear. “Today I got a call inviting me to consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to become the interim CEO of OpenAI,” Shear posted on X (formerly Twitter).
“After consulting with my family and reflecting on it for just a few hours, I accepted.”
The former Twitch CEO also added that the board’s decision to cut Altman wasn’t about safety disagreements. “Their reasoning was completely different from that,” he said. “I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercialising our awesome models.”
Microsoft smells blood in water, pounces
Meanwhile, OpenAI’s major investor Microsoft has made the most of the situation. CEO Satya Nadella announced late Sunday night that Altman, Brockman, and other prominent OpenAI members were joining Microsoft to form a new advanced AI research team.
“The mission continues,” Altman responded on X, confirming the news.
Other talent Microsoft managed to poach include Jakub Pachoki, former director of research, OpenAI’s former research scientist Szymon Sidor, and its former head of preparedness Aleksander Madry.
In his announcement post, Nadella added that Microsoft was still “committed” to its work with OpenAI. The tech giant is rumoured to have invested $10 billion into the startup, and together the firms are developing the Maia AI chip. Similarly, OpenAI’s new CEO Shear said that its partnership with Microsoft “remained strong.”
It’s rumoured, however, that the board’s decision to cut Altman was in part due to his recent work on a project called ‘Tigris.’ According to Bloomberg, the custom AI Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) chip would rival Nvidia and had already attracted considerable interest from VCs in the Middle East along with Microsoft.