UPDATED: Amid Executive Turmoil at OpenAI, Microsoft Poaches Altman for 'AI Research Team'
- Update: OpenAI has rehired Altman. Full story here.
It was a chaotic weekend of executive musical chairs at OpenAI, the company that's arguably at the lead of today's enterprise AI tech boom.
The result: OpenAI is facing an unprecedented employee revolt, and Microsoft has poached one of tech's most ascendant figures.
On Friday, in a move that shocked industry watchers, OpenAI's board fired its popular co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, providing no reason other than saying "[Altman] was not consistently candid in his communications with the board." However, reports suggest that the board -- in particular, chief scientist Ilya Sutskever -- had been growing increasingly leery of Altman's full-bore approach to generative AI development and his perceived insufficient regard for its dangers.
After Altman's ouster, in a show of solidarity, OpenAI board chairman Greg Brockman quit the company, along with three high-ranking AI scientists.
Since then, OpenAI has been scrambling to appease concerned investors, including Microsoft; despite being OpenAI's biggest backer, Microsoft learned of Altman's ouster "just a minute before the news was shared with the world," per reports. Investors were said to have been working with Microsoft to determine how to pressure OpenAI's board to rehire Altman (one such strategy would have allegedly involved Microsoft withholding Azure credits from OpenAI).
For a time, it did look like Altman's return to OpenAI was a close thing. On Sunday afternoon, Altman posted a picture of himself at OpenAI headquarters, wearing a guest pass, presumably to discuss with the people there the terms of his potential return.
On late Sunday, however, those negotiations broke down. Instead of rehiring Altman, OpenAI named Emmett Shear, the co-founder and former CEO of streaming giant Twitch, its interim CEO.
UPDATE: In a post Monday on X detailing his immediate plans for OpenAI (which include "Hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point" and "Reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures"), interim CEO Shear emphasized that Altman was not fired over AI safety concerns.
"The board did *not* remove Sam over any specific disagreement on safety, their reasoning was completely different from that," he wrote. "I'm not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models."
The original story resumes below.
Hours later, Microsoft announced it has hired Altman to spearhead "a new advanced AI research team." Joining Altman at Microsoft is Brockman, along with the three OpenAI scientists who quit after Altman's firing. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced the hirings in a brief statement:
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 Shear and OAI’s new leadership team and working with them. And we're extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.
Microsoft currently has a 49 percent interest in OpenAI, having poured billions into the company and heavily integrating OpenAI technology into its own product stack under the "Copilot" brand. It is unclear what form Microsoft's support will take now that Altman has left OpenAI.
The reaction within OpenAI to the failed negotiations has been overwhelmingly negative. According to Wired's Kara Swisher, over 500 of OpenAI's roughly 700 employees have signed a scathing letter threatening to quit their jobs and join Altman's new venture at Microsoft unless the board resigned. The letter, addressed to the OpenAI board, reads in part:
Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI. 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. Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join. We will take this step imminently, unless all current board members resign, and the board appoints two new lead independent directors, such as Bret Taylor and Will Hurd, and reinstates Sam Altman and Greg Brockman.
Surprisingly, Sutskever, the board member who is widely seen to be the architect of Altman's firing, is one of the signees. Sutskever also issued a statement Monday morning, saying, "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."
Meanwhile, amid the very public turmoil currently wracking the company they co-founded, Altman and Brockman appear sanguine. After Nadella announced his and Altman's hiring, Brockman commented on X (formerly Twitter), "We are going to build something new & it will be incredible."
Altman, meanwhile, said simply, "The mission continues."
Stay tuned for more coverage of this developing story.