Tech world in uproar: OpenAI faces staff exodus after firing CEO
Sam Altman has been tossed out of one tech giant into the welcoming arms of another. Photo: TND/Getty/OpenAI/Microsoft
OpenAI, one of the world’s leading developers of artificial intelligence, is in shambles as hundreds of staff threaten to resign and follow the company’s recently fired CEO to Microsoft.
The decision of OpenAI’s board to fire CEO and co-founder Sam Altman last week seems to have spectacularly backfired, with Microsoft leaping on the chance to welcome Altman into the fold as CEO of its new advanced AI research team.
Joining him will be fellow OpenAI co-founder and president Greg Brockman – who had also been suddenly removed from his board chair position last week – along with some members of the company’s top staff, including key researchers.
On Sunday (local time), OpenAI named former Twitch chief executive Emmett Shear as interim CEO, after initially appointing the company’s chief technology officer Mira Murati to the position.
But it is still facing the possibility of mass staff exodus.
‘Nothing without its people’
About 95 per cent of the company’s employees have signed a letter to the board calling for Altman and Brockman to be reinstated, for the board that had eliminated them to resign, and for new board members to be appointed.
If their demands aren’t met, employees wrote, “Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join.”
Many also took to X with the message, “OpenAI is nothing without its people.”
3 board members, who never engage internally, have had 3 days to tell their story, and they’ve kept quiet. There’s nothing there.
— Peter Welinder (@npew) November 20, 2023
In the wake of staff backlash, OpenAI co-founder, chief scientist and board member Ilya Sutskever has changed his tune, signed the staff’s letter to the board and expressed his “deep regret” for his part 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,” he posted on X.
The loyalty of staff comes despite the board’s initial reason for Altman’s termination being that they no longer had “confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI” after a review concluded he was not “consistently candid” in his communications with the board, which had hindered the board’s “ability to exercise its responsibilities”.
But The New York Times reported that after conversations with the board to understand its move, OpenAI COO Brad Lightcap told employees: “We can say definitively that the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety or security/privacy practices.
“This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.”
OpenAI’s loss is Microsoft’s gain
With Altman at the helm, OpenAI helped lead the world into a new era of AI technology over the past couple of years through the development of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT and DALL-E.
Unlike predictive AI, which analyses information to perform functions such as optimising internet search results or recommending films to watch next on Netflix, generative AI can use collected data to generate new content, such as images or music, or perform complicated tasks, such as writing code.
The rapid advancement of generative AI has stoked some fears around disinformation, copyright violations and other unethical uses, but OpenAI calls itself a non-profit organisation aiming to build “safe” artificial general intelligence that “benefits all of humanity”.
Last week Microsoft, which was already a major investor in OpenAI, revealed part of its plans to “rapidly innovate” in the AI sector was its existing long-term partnership with OpenAI.
As you saw at Microsoft Ignite this week, we’re continuing to rapidly innovate for this era of AI, with over 100 announcements across the full tech stack – from AI systems, models, and tools in Azure, to Copilot. Most importantly, we’re committed to delivering all of this to our…
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) November 17, 2023
Even though Microsoft has snapped up Altman and key OpenAI talent, those plans seem to remain unchanged.
After his unceremonious dumping, Altman posted on X: “We are all going to work together some way or other, and I’m so excited.”
“[Microsoft CEO] Satya and my top priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive,” he wrote in another post.
“We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers.
“The OpenAI/Microsoft partnership makes this very doable.”