Updated: Latest on Altman-OpenAI Saga Has Ex-Twitch Chief Stepping In as Interim CEO
Update 2: OpenAI has rehired Altman. Full story here.
Update: Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear has been named OpenAI's interim CEO, reports The Information, as negotiations between OpenAI and Altman have failed. The original story published Nov. 19 follows.
Speculation in the tech industry has been rampant since Friday, when the board of OpenAI, the company that's arguably at the helm of today's AI boom, ousted its popular co-founder and then-CEO Sam Altman.
The board only obliquely explained its decision to fire Altman, saying it found "[Altman] was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities." OpenAI CTO Mira Murati was named temporary CEO while the company searches for a permanent replacement for Altman.
At the same time, OpenAI co-founder, president and board chairman Greg Brockman was indicated to have been removed from his position on the board, but "will remain in his role [of president] at the company."
However, Brockman subsequently announced that he had quit.
In a message on X (formerly Twitter) on Friday, Brockman said, "[B]ased on today's news, I quit. ... I continue to believe in the mission of creating safe AGI [artificial general intelligence] that benefits all of humanity."
In a follow-up message (that confusingly refers to himself in the third-person), Brockman revealed that both he and Altman were blindsided by the board's moves and "are still trying to figure out exactly what happened." Per Brockman's account, on Thursday night, Altman was invited to a video meeting scheduled for Friday at noon, during which Altman was told by Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI chief scientist, co-founder and board member, that he was being fired. In a separate video meeting soon after, Brockman himself was told by Sutskever that he was being removed from his position as board chairman.
In the wake of Altman and Brockman's exits, according to The Information, three other high-ranking OpenAI researchers voluntarily left the company, including research director Jakub Pachocki.
After Friday's moves, OpenAI's board now comprises Sutskever, Adam D'Angelo (CEO of Quora), Tasha McCauley (entrepreneur) and Helen Toner (member of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology).
The OpenAI board has not yet issued an official explanation for Altman's firing, though an internal memo by COO Brad Lightcap to employees said it was "definitively...not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices."
However, media reports indicate that there had been growing discord between Altman and Sutskever, a deep learning pioneer who co-created the AlexNet convolutional neural network.
While Altman publicly expressed relatively few qualms about the full-bore development and dissemination of generative AI technologies, Sutskever was reportedly one of several top OpenAI executives apprehensive of this approach. The New York Times reported Sutskever "was increasingly worried that OpenAI's technology could be dangerous and that Mr. Altman was not paying enough attention to that risk."
Sutskever's role at OpenAI was recently de-emphasized as a result of this conflict, according to a Bloomberg report.
Furthermore, some on OpenAI's board were growing increasingly leery of Altman's business pursuits -- particularly a venture revealed this past September that's aimed at creating an industry-first AI device. Altman reportedly had plans to partner with former Apple designer Jony Ive and Arm chipmaker SoftBank to raise $1 billion in funding for the project.
However, per Bloomberg, "Sutskever and his allies on the OpenAI board chafed at Altman's efforts to raise funds off of OpenAI's name, and they harbored concerns that the new businesses might not share the same governance model as OpenAI, the person said."
OpenAI's biggest backer, Microsoft, apparently had been kept in the dark regarding the decision to fire Altman until the last possible moment. Axios' Ina Fried reported Friday that Redmond learned of Altman's ouster "just a minute before the news was shared with the world."
Microsoft has staked its future on OpenAI's technology, specifically ChatGPT, which Redmond has folded into its product stack under the "Copilot" branding. Microsoft has poured billions into OpenAI, giving it a 49 percent stake in the company.
Perhaps in a bid to assuage concerns that Altman's abrupt departure would put a wrench in his company's AI plans, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella fired off a perfunctory message on Friday, saying, "We have a long-term agreement with OpenAI with full access to everything we need to deliver on our innovation agenda and an exciting product roadmap; and remain committed to our partnership, and to Mira and the team. Together, we will continue to deliver the meaningful benefits of this technology to the world."
Behind the scenes, however, Microsoft is said to have a ringside seat to several efforts to reinstate Altman and reconfigure the board that fired him.
Microsoft is reportedly working "to bring back Altman" with Thrive Capital and Tiger Global Management, says Bloomberg, and with Sequoia Capital, per Forbes. The investors are said to be formulating a plan that includes "withheld [sic] cloud computing credits from Microsoft" to pressure OpenAI to restore Altman as CEO, and to replace Sutskever and other board members who backed his ouster. (Potential board replacements include former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor.)
Besides outside investors, there also appears to be support within OpenAI for Altman's reinstatement. A source told Fortune that supporters of Altman's return include "Interim CEO Mira Murati, Chief Strategy Officer Jason Kwon and Chief Operating Officer Brad Lightcap."
Altman is reportedly "ambivalent" about returning to the company he co-founded, especially given the opportunity to start a new company from scratch with Brockman. As of this writing, however, negotiations between OpenAI's investors, its board and Altman are ongoing; 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.
Stay tuned to PureAI.com as this story develops.