Sam Altman’s sudden sacking as CEO and board member at OpenAI, on Friday, caught everyone by surprise. To make the headlines it has — after a succession of bad news for the tech sector, from Sam Bankman-Fried’s conviction for fraud and conspiracy and the latest woe’s at Elon Musk’s X and SpaceX — underlines the shock it caused. And when much commentary is about the job losses AI might cause, few expected the first high-profile AI-related job losses would be Altman and fellow OpenAI board member, Greg Brockman.
A weekend of speculation about the reasons behind it and even of the potential of a reversal, seeing Altman return, and the board sacked instead, has followed. Instead, today, we have seen OpenAI rapidly appoint a permanent CEO and Altman walk into a job with Microsoft.
However, we start the week knowing little more about the sacking than we did on Friday.
The poster boy of AI
Altman had become the figurehead of AI, especially after the release of ChatGPT. Although machine learning and AI have been in use for years, ChatGPT brought it into mainstream awareness, allowing anyone to interact with an AI using natural language.
While issues about accuracy and hallucinations have been well publicised. The progress OpenAI was making has left most feeling something other than business reasons may have been behind the sacking. With a major partnership in place with Microsoft, and OpenAI valued at around $80 billion, there are no apparent business reasons to part company with the CEO. Indeed, a leaked internal memo stated it was not “anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices.”
Instead, according to the stories that have emerged since Friday, Altman was summoned to a meeting with the board where he was sacked. A few minutes later, Brockman, the OpenAI president, was sacked by the same meeting. The only people aware this was going to happen were the board members involved and CTO Mira Murati, who has been appointed the interim CEO.
The board’s statement provided little information, stating that the sacking took place because he was not “consistently candid in his communications.” While the statement, ironically, lacked candour about the reasons behind the sacking. There are suggestions that there are clues there.
The statement reiterates OpenAI’s mission “to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity,” and the board’s commitment to it. There has been some suggestion that differences of opinion over the role of AI may have been at the heart of the sacking. Others have highlighted that Elon Musk’s early association with OpenAI ended, in part, because of his concerns about the apocalyptic potential of advanced AI.
The board politics behind the sackings
What is notable is the certainty with which the board acted. The role of boards varies between jurisdiction and companies, however, they all typically have two key roles. They set the direction of a company, and they are the people to whom the CEO is answerable.
At OpenAI, there were only six board members, including Altman and Brockman, which suggests that the four who opted to sack Altman were all committed to the radical course of action they pursued.
Combined with the rather opaque statement about Altman not being “consistently candid”, it means there’s lots of room for speculation about what actually happened.
The lack of certainty, however, did not stop many from immediately proclaiming their support for Altman, with people like Eric Schmidt and even France’s digital minister, Jean-Noel Barrot, praising him.
The calm after the storm
But after a weekend of frenzied speculation, everyone involved seems to have already moved on. Murati’s tenure as OpenAI’s interim CEO was notable for its brevity, with Emmett Shear, the co-founder of streaming site Twitch, appointed as OpenAI’s substantive CEO by the end of the weekend.
Meanwhile, Microsoft moved quickly to appoint both Altman and Brockman to lead a new AI team at the company. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, however, also tweeted a welcome to Shear, and that they remained committed to their partnership with OpenAI. It raises the prospect of some interesting dynamics in future meetings between the two companies.
The new appointments, however, will not stop the speculation about the reasons behind the sackings. While ChatGPT will probably offer some authoritative sounding, but made up, reasons for the sackings when its knowledge covers 2023, unless OpenAI’s board are more candid about the reasons, we may never know what lay behind them.
UPDATE 22 NOVEMBER: And, as suddenly as it happened, everything went back to, almost, how it was. OpenAI announced that Altman and Brockman would be returning to the company. The board, however, are paying the price for their actions, with most leaving and just Quora’s Adam D’Angelo remaining. The company states they are ‘still working out the details’.
While the reversal may raise eyebrows for its approach to corporate governance, it highlights that OpenAI and Altman are potentially inseparable. The new names on the board, including former US Treasury Secretary and Salesforce CEO Bret Taylor also mark a likely pivot away from OpenAI’s non-profit status towards being a commercial entity.