When it comes to building the future we’ll all inhabit, few people matter more than Sam Altman.
The OpenAI founder was, for better or for worse, leading the charge into our AI-driven tomorrow—until he was abruptly ousted by the OpenAI board on Friday. Investors freaked out. So did OpenAI’s employees, who, judging from Twitter, appeared ready to jump ship en masse and follow Sam.
The weekend was filled with speculation that Altman might be “unfired.” Indeed, as of Sunday afternoon, Altman was back in the building, with negotiations reportedly underway to reinstate him as CEO. But by Sunday evening California time, news broke that Sam would be replaced by Twitch CEO Emmett Shear.
The whole thing was like watching Succession in real time. And reporter Ashlee Vance has been documenting it all.
Ashlee is the author of When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach. He’s also a tech reporter who, along with his Bloomberg colleagues, has spent a sleep-deprived weekend trying to figure out what the heck is going down over at OpenAI. Which, of course, is the first thing I asked him when we spoke.
So, Ashlee, what the heck happened at OpenAI?
The basics of it are that the board of directors of OpenAI, which is a small board, shockingly, out of nowhere, decided to throw Sam out of the company, and did not provide a whole lot of information as to why they were doing this. That kicked off a crazy two days of people leaving OpenAI, the company’s investors saying how furious they were about this decision, and negotiations kicking off to possibly bring Sam back.
The board didn’t offer much explanation for their decision, so what do we know about why they did what they did?
I would say the strangest part of the story is how it was handled by the board and how little information they initially provided. I’ve interviewed dozens of people involved in all of this and, as far as I can tell, the board has never actually explained why. In their statement they insinuated that there was a lack of trust between them and Sam. So the board said that they “no longer have confidence in Sam’s ability to continue leading OpenAI,” and that he “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
I think when a lot of people read that they assumed the worst: that Sam had committed some kind of crime or had been stealing money or that there was a scandal underlying all of this. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems to be that the board decided they just didn’t trust him to lead this company.
Some reporting has suggested a philosophical difference over how AI should be used, and how worried about making money Sam should be. Is it right to think of this as part of a bigger ethical debate about the technology?
It’s really hard to tell, if I’m honest. At face value, all of that makes sense. You can see that Sam has pushed the company into a more moneymaking direction. He’s moving the company very fast. It’s gone from this research nonprofit to a product company. There’s speculation that there’s a dispute over this but the board has not made it clear that that is the case.
As of this afternoon, Sam was back in the OpenAI building and it appeared he might be reinstated as CEO. What happened that sparked a possible reversal of the board’s decision?
Things unraveled pretty fast and in ways it seems the board was not at all prepared for. First of all, Greg Brockman, who was president at OpenAI and who the board demoted but kept on, resigned after Sam was let go. That was followed by other key departures. The major researchers on OpenAI, including Microsoft, Thrive Capital, and Tiger Global, more or less lost their minds at what had happened. They made it very clear that they would like Sam back. And so, over the last couple of days, there’s been constant negotiations, with the investors for sure trying to get Sam back.
What happened between this afternoon (when it appeared Sam was back in) and this evening (when he was definitively out)?
Sam was never really back in. He visited the headquarters, but the board was not in the building. The interim CEO, Mira Murati, had sided with Sam and was trying to find a way to bring him back. The board went into a bunker and was doing its own thing. They were, in essence, divided camps.
OpenAI’s investors are upset by the outcome. I imagine a number of employees are upset and some will be happy. The company will be different in the months ahead for sure.
The new CEO is Emmett Shear. What do we know about him?
He’s a longtime internet player and most notably was CEO of the massive live streaming service Twitch. He’s thought to be a very talented exec and deeply knowledgeable on AI. He’s well connected and is actually a partner at Y Combinator, which Sam used to run.
So this obviously makes for great boardroom drama and an incredible business story. But what does it mean for bigger-picture questions about our future?
You could argue that this is just drama and not much changes. Google, Facebook, the open-source software world, all have almost comparable AI systems and are racing ahead to develop them as fast as they can. And so whether or not OpenAI exists may not matter.
On the other hand, for the last couple of years OpenAI has shown that it is making the biggest breakthroughs. It has been the company that has made AI matter to consumers more than any other company and is at the forefront of this technology. Much of that relies on the company’s scientists, who have made some of the biggest breakthroughs in the field, but also on Sam, who has raised the vast sums of money that it takes to develop this technology.
Without this pairing between Sam and these scientists, the leading AI company would almost certainly be in a very tough position. But overall, are we still hurtling toward this superintelligence technology, with or without OpenAI? Yes.
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