More details of Sam Altman’s sudden ousting as CEO of OpenAI have emerged, with several senior researchers quitting the company, and executives and investors from across the industry expressing shock and confusion at what is increasingly being perceived as a board coup.
Hours after Sam Altman was booted from the company by its board, Greg Brockman, another OpenAI cofounder and the company’s chairman quit in protest. Brockman later posted details of Altman’s removal suggesting that the company’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskevar, had orchestrated the effort to remove the CEO.
Brockman’s post claimed that Altman was told he was being fired by Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and a member of its board. Several accounts from inside the company suggest that a disagreement between Sutskevar and Altman centered around the company’s direction, and specifically its ability to build more capable AI technology safety.
“This was the board doing its duty to the mission of the nonprofit, which is to make sure that OpenAI builds AGI that benefits all of humanity,” Sutskever told employees at an emergency all-hands on Friday afternoon, according to a report in The Information.
Jakub Pchocki, a lead research on OpenAI’s groundbreaking language model GPT-4, Aleksander Madry, a professor at MIT recruited by Altman to work on AI safety, and Szymon Sidor, a researcher who has worked on a branch of AI known as reinforcement learning, all reportedly quit as the crisis deepened.
The fallout from Sam Alman’s firing as CEO of OpenAI has shaken the tech industry, and threatens to turn into a backlash against the remaining board.
Executives at Microsoft, which has invested a reported $13 billion in OpenAI, were said to be “blindsided” by news of Altman’s exit, and the CEO Satya Nadella was furious, Bloomberg reports.
OpenAI declined to provide further comment on the situation. Neither Altman, Brockman, nor Sutskever responded to requests for comment. Inquiries sent to the three researchers who quit also went unanswered.
Altman had led OpenAI on an incredible run of success starting with the launch of ChatGPT less than a year ago. He quickly became a figurehead for the generative AI boom, and he was courted by world leaders keen to learn about the remarkable potential—and the potential dangers—of more advanced AI.
Earlier this month, Altman hosted OpenAI’s first developer conference and announced a plan to create an app store for AI agents built on top of its technology. Altman was also courting Middle East sovereign wealth funding for the development of AI chips that would compete with Nvidia’s, according to Bloomberg. The Information has previously reported that Altman was exploring the possibility of developing AI-oriented hardware in collaboration with the ex-Apple designer Johnny Ive with funding from Softbank.
Disagreements over the issue of prioritizing safe development of AI previously led several prominent OpenAI researchers to leave the company and found competitor Anthropic.
The development of OpenAI’s most powerful large language model, GPT-4, has sparked unprecedented debate around the potential for AI to advance beyond human control. In July, Sutskever became the co-lead of a “Superalignent group” at OpenAI, dedicated to producing “technical breakthroughs to steer and control AI systems much smarter than us.”
Speaking at the APEC CEO summit in San Francisco last week, Altman indicated that the company had been making progress on developing a more powerful successor to GPT-4. “Four times now in the history of OpenAI—the most recent time was just in the last couple of weeks—I’ve gotten to be in the room when we push the veil of ignorance back and the frontier of discovery forward,” he said.
Many within the tech industry have spoken out to support Altman, or criticize OpenAI’s board for its actions.
“What happened at OpenAI today is a board coup that we have not seen the likes of since 1985 when the then-Apple board pushed out Steve Jobs,” Angel investor Ron Conway wrote on X. “It is shocking; it is irresponsible; and it does not do right by Sam & Greg or all the builders in OpenAI.”
“Sam Altman is a hero of mine,” Eric Schmidt, the ex-CEO of Google posted. “He built a company from nothing to $90 Billion in value, and changed our collective world forever. I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
OpenAI announced that Altman would be replaced by Mira Murati, previously OpenAI’s CTO, who is serving as temporary CEO while the company searches for a permanent replacement.
Some employees at OpenAI seemed to suggest that Murati had been serving as de facto leader of the company for some time.
“In the craziness of ChatGPT forming, @miramurati was the one making final decisions in daily standups” Evan Morikawa, an engineering manager at OpenAI wrote on X. “She’s been leading this company for years and will continue to do an amazing job here.”
Altman, who has little financial stake in OpenAI, took to X in the hours following his ousting to suggest that he might reveal more about the circumstances of his departure. “If I start going off, the OpenAi board should go after me for the full value of my shares,” he wrote.