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OpenAI's Altman is Out... Or Maybe He's Back (UPDATE: He's Back)

The stunning news last Friday that OpenAI CEO and co-founder Sam Altman, who has become the veritable face of generative AI, had been fired by the organization's board of directors, and the subsequent announcement that the company's president and co-founder Greg Brockman had quit because of the ouster, rocked the genAI world. Not only did the board act without giving Altman advanced warning, but they also sacked him without giving a heads up to the company's top investor, Microsoft.

Over the weekend, as others resigned in protest, including Jakub Pachocki, the company’s director of research, Aleksander Madry, head of a team evaluating potential risks from AI, and Szymon Sidor, a seven-year researcher at the startup, this slippery drama got... well... slipperier.

Almost immediately after news of his ouster broke, Altman let it be known that he, Brockman, and other OpenAI employees who quit in protest were thinking about starting a new company.

And now, according to the Wall Street Journal, OpenAI's investors are pushing the board to bring Altman back, including Microsoft, which invested $13 billion in the company, and venture firm Thrive Capital, which is the second-largest shareholder. Both were blind-sided by the board's action. Axios' Ina Fried reported Friday that Microsoft learned about Altman's ouster "just a minute before the news was shared with the world."

Altman is reportedly considering a return, but he's saying he'll come back to the company only if the current board is removed and a new governance structure is put in place.

A number of stories emerged over the weekend about why Altman was fired—beyond the board's published statement that "he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board"—but it seems most likely this "leadership transition" followed disagreements between the chief executive and his board on AI safety, the speed of development of the technology, and the commercialization of the company. Reportedly, Altman clashed with OpenAI chief scientist and co-founder Ilya Sutskever specifically over these issues.

Sutskever is a deep learning pioneer who co-created the AlexNet convolutional neural network. He and Altman differed publicly about the speed of the commercial development of AI. The New York Times reported  that Sutskever "was increasingly worried that OpenAI's technology could be dangerous and that Mr. Altman was not paying enough attention to that risk." 

It has also been reported that OpenAI board members were growing increasingly unhappy about Altman's business pursuits, including a potential venture with Apple’s former chief design officer, Jony Ive. The two reportedly have been in in talks to raise $1 billion from SoftBank to develop the "iPhone" of AI.

Our sister publication, Pure AI, reported that Altman posted a picture of himself on "X" at OpenAI headquarters wearing a guest pass, presumably to discuss with the people there the terms of his potential return. " first and last time i ever wear one of these," he wrote.

Posted by John K. Waters on November 19, 2023