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Why it matters: Sam Altman, who co-founded well-known artificial intelligence firm OpenAI, was fired as CEO on Friday in a move that sent shockwaves through Silicon Valley. His sudden departure seems to have prompted other senior figures at the company to quit, which is a huge blow to companies like Microsoft which are deeply invested in using and building OpenAI tech as part of their wider strategy.
On Friday, OpenAI announced a “leadership transition” that would see Sam Altman depart the company and be immediately replaced by appointed interim CEO Mira Murati, previously chief technology officer. The company says the decision was made following a review process by the board of directors who no longer have confidence in Altman’s ability to lead OpenAI and stay “consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
Hours after the news broke about Altman’s abrupt exit, OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman revealed on X that he was leaving the company in light of this development. And if a report from The Information is to be believed, three senior researchers at the AI firm have also quit for the same reason.
One of them is said to be none other than Jakub Pachocki, the director of research at OpenAI who has been recently credited by Altman for his contribution to the development of GPT-4.
– Greg Brockman (@gdb) November 18, 2023
Interestingly, Altman found out he was fired during a Google Meet call that took place on Friday, just as OpenAI was getting ready to make that decision public. Minutes later, Brockman was invited to join the call, only to be told he would have to step down from his chair on the board. Unlike Altman, the board wanted Brockman to retain his role as president since he was considered “vital” to the company.
The departures didn’t just send a series of shockwaves through Silicon Valley, but they also caught many of OpenAI’s investors by surprise. That includes senior figures at Microsoft, which notably invested over $13 billion into spearheading the development of large language models like GPT-4. The Redmond giant has even developed its own AI processors and plans to infuse OpenAI’s tech into nearly all of its products and services, from Windows and Office, to the Bing search engine and the humble Microsoft Teams.
In a statement, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said “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.”
When he’s not busy with artificial intelligence ventures, Altman is busy creating novel cryptocurrencies, among other things
The 38-year-old Altman co-founded OpenAI in 2015 and presided over its big successes like ChatGPT, which is arguably the most popular consumer-facing AI service out there. As you’d expect, Altman found his boardroom knifing to be a “weird experience in many ways” and said it was “like reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive.” After all, it was only two weeks ago that Altman was proudly discussing ambitious plans to take OpenAI’s tech into the mainstream.
It’s still unclear what led to Altman’s sudden exit, but it is widely speculated that he pushed too hard for unsustainable growth strategies that were seen by other board members as too far removed from the original, non-profit mission and goals of the company.
In any case, the OpenAI schism will no doubt cause ripples in the AI industry and open the door for other organizations to shine either by themselves or through new strategic partnerships. Microsoft insists this is business as usual, but it’s entirely possible we will see a greater upheaval at OpenAI that will eventually spawn a new AI venture. Both Altman and Brockman seem determined to build a new chapter, with “greater things coming soon.” We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out.