WTF Is Happening at OpenAI?

Lifestyle

It’s been three days of chaos for OpenAI, the major artificial intelligence firm, after the board of directors suddenly fired CEO Sam Altman on Friday, Nov. 17. Rumors have swirled, alliances have formed and crumbled, heart emojis have been tweeted, investors have scrambled, rivals (sorta) have pounced, employees have threatened mass resignations, and questions have been raised once more about the potential powers and perils of an AI-driven future. Even after all that, it’s safe to say the dust has definitely not settled. 

For those trying to catch up, or just catch their breath, here’s a breakdown of everything that’s happened at OpenAI since last Friday. (Unfortunately, you can’t just ask OpenAI’s marquee product, ChatGPT, to give you a summary. We tried, for the bit, and were told, “I can’t provide real-time updates, as my last update was in January 2022, and I don’t have access to current news past that point.” Sigh.) This way, you can go into Thanksgiving prepared to discuss the hottest, weirdest story in Silicon Valley since, well, last Thanksgiving, when another prominent Sam was at the center of the hottest, weirdest story in Silicon Valley. 

Friday, Nov. 17
Altman is ousted — others follow in solidarity, but no reason is given.

OpenAI issues a statement announcing Altman “will depart as CEO and leave the board of directors.” The company’s statement explained the decision followed “a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, was named interim CEO. 

(By way of background, Altman helped found OpenAI in 2015 as a non-profit with funding from Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Amazon Web Services. Altman became CEO in 2019 and supervised the creation of a for-profit OpenAI subsidiary, though the company continued to be overseen by an independent nonprofit board of directors.)

Following the news, Altman issued a statement on X writing, “I loved my time at OpenAI. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people. will have more to say about what’s next later.”

In solidarity with Altman, OpenAI’s president, Greg Brockman announced he was leaving the company, in solidarity. “[W]e’ve been through some tough & great times together, accomplishing so much despite all the reasons it should have been impossible,” he wrote in a message to the OpenAI team (which he also shared on X), adding “but based on today’s news, i quit.” 

Additionally, The Information reported that three senior researchers at OpenAI were resigning: Jakob Pachocki, director for research; Aleksander Madry, who was heading a team looking at the potential risks of AI; and Simon Sidor, a researcher with seven years under his belt at OpenAI.

Beyond the board’s somewhat vague statement, no official reason for Altman’s ouster was given. Reports, however, indicated there was internal tension over the direction the company was headed, and how OpenAI’s technology might be used going forward.

Reporter Kara Swisher, in a series of tweets, said there was a “misalignment” between the profit and nonprofit “adherents” at the company, adding: “Sources tell me that the profit direction of the company under Altman and the speed of development, which could be seen as too risky, and the nonprofit side dedicated to more safety and caution were at odds.” 

Swisher and others, including The Verge, reported that board member, co-founder, and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever played am major role in the decision to oust Altman. Sutskever, as The Verge put it, had been “steadily beating the drum about the dangers of super intelligent AI”; those concerns may have been at odds with some of Altman’s more commercial ambitions for the company. 

Saturday, Nov. 18
Not even major investors knew it was coming — and that led to a clusterf-ck.

In a memo sent to staffers Saturday (via Axios), OpenAI’s chief operating officer Brad Lightcap called Altman’s firing a “surprise,” and said there’d been “multiple conversations with the board to try to better understand the reasons and process behind their decision.” Lightcap also seemed to put the kibosh on rumors that something more sinister lurked behind Altman’s firing, saying the board’s decision “was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices.” 

Lightcap also noted that “discussions, and options regarding our path forward, are ongoing this morning” — and it soon came out that one possible option was reinstating Altman and Brockman. According to The New York Times, many of OpenAI’s biggest investors supported that push, particularly Microsoft, which had invested $13 billion in the company and saw its stock tumble after Altman was fired. (Apparently, Microsoft and other major investors, like the VC firms Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital, learned about Altman’s firing either one minute before it was announced, or after the news became public.) At the same time, reports emerged that Altman and Brockman were pitching a new AI venture of their own to investors. 

The move to bring Altman and Brockman back to OpenAI seemed to gather steam Saturday evening as negotiations continued. Altman started a bit of a lovefest on social media, tweeting, “I love the openai team so much,” which prompted a plethora of quote tweets from OpenAI employees filled with heart emojis. The Information even reported that chief strategy officer (and major Altman ally) Jason Kwon sent staffers a memo saying the company was “optimistic” it could bring the pair back. 

Altman, of course, had conditions for his return, including the resignations of the board members who ousted him. According to a Saturday evening report from The Verge, the board had “agreed in principle to resign,” but they also continued to waver as a key deadline passed. 

Sunday, Nov. 19
Negotiations to bring Altman back fall through — but major investor Microsoft scoops him up before markets open on Monday.

On Sunday, as negotiations over Altman’s return resumed, he tweeted a selfie at the OpenAI offices, sporting a sour look and a guest pass: “First and last time I ever wear one of these,” he wrote.

According to The New York Times, the negotiations centered largely on how OpenAI’s board of directors might be restructured, as well as who might replace the members who decided to fire Altman if they ultimately stepped down themselves. Boba tea and McDonald’s were reportedly on the menu for the negotiating parties. 

By Sunday night, however, the writing was looking pretty clear on the wall. Bloomberg reported that Murati, the interim CEO, was trying to bring Altman and Brockman back to the company, at the same time other members of the OpenAI board were working to install a new CEO. Then, a little after 8 p.m. PT, it was confirmed that Altman would not return to OpenAI, and that former Twitch CEO and co-founder, Emmett Shear, would replace Murati as interim CEO. 

In a memo, OpenAI board members Sutskever, Adam D’Angelo, Helen Toner, and Tasha McCauley reaffirmed their decision to fire Altman, saying it was “the only path to advance and defend the mission of OpenAI.” They continued: “Put simply, Sam’s behavior and lack of transparency in his interactions with the board undermined the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company in the manner it was mandated to do.”

Before the clock could strike midnight on the West Coast, however, Microsoft entered the chat to announce it was hiring Altman and Brockman. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella tweeted that the pair will “lead a new advanced AI research team,” while also stating the computing giant would “remain committed” to its partnership with OpenAI. (The swift move to hire Altman Sunday night was particularly unsurprising as Microsoft aimed to reassure investors before the stock market opened Monday morning.)

Altman marked the occasion by re-tweeting Nadella and writing, “The mission continues.” 

As for OpenAI’s new interim CEO, Shear laid out a “three point plan for the next 30 days” in a tweet technically sent early Monday morning.” Along with speaking with employees, partners, and investors, as well as reforming OpenAI’s management team, Shear said he would, “hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report.”

Monday, Nov. 20
A Microsoft-OpenAI partnership seems in the works, which should stabilize things — at least for now?

In the wee hours of Monday morning, the heart emojis returned. After the board rejected Altman’s return, and Microsoft scooped him up, top OpenAI figures, including Lightcap, Kwon, and Murati, all tweeted the same message, “OpenAI is nothing without its people.” Altman, in turn, retweeted many of them with an accompanying red heart. 

But the most surprising statement came at about about 8:15 a.m. ET, when Sutskever — who’d reportedly led the charge against Altman — tweeted, “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.” That earned a whopping three heart emojis from Altman. 

Sutskever was even among the reportedly hundreds of OpenAI employees, who signed an open letter threatening to resign and join Altman at Microsoft, if the board did not reinstate him and Brockman, and resign themselves (other signatories included Altman’s main allies throughout the debacle). The letter, shared by Swisher, said the board’s “conduct has made it clear you did not have the competence to oversee OpenAI.” 

The letter also stated: “Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join.” 

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Altman himself tweeted Monday afternoon, “We have more unity and commitment and focus than ever before. We are all going to work together some way or other, and i’m so excited. One team, one mission. Satya and my top priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive. We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers. The OpenAI/Microsoft partnership makes this very doable.”

The kicker to all this? Everything that happened late Sunday and into Monday, isn’t technically signed in ink just yet. As The Verge reported late Monday, Altman’s deal with Microsoft isn’t official just yet, and apparently he and Brockman remain open to returning to OpenAI if the board members who ousted him resign. 

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