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November 20, 2023

Sam A.’s Wild Weekend

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman testifies in Congress on May 16, 2023

The surprise news Friday afternoon that Sam Altman was being fired from his job as CEO of OpenAI was just the start of a wild weekend for Altman and the future of one of the most promising AI startups in the world.

It’s not clear exactly why OpenAI’s board of directors decided to fire Altman on November 17, just over a week before the one-year anniversary of OpenAI’s launch of ChatGPT, which jumpstarted the large language model (LLM) and generative AI craze that has consumed the IT industry and fascinated the world at large for the past year.

In a statement posted to the OpenAI website Friday afternoon, the board said Altman, who is a 2023 Datanami Person to Watch, was fired because he wasn’t “consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”

The board initially tapped CTO Mira Murati as the interim CEO, then pivoted and named Emmett Shear, the former CEO of Twitch, as the interim CEO while the board sought a permanent replacement. That meant that OpenAI, arguably the most influential AI company in the world, had three CEOs in three days.

Amid the uproar of Altman’s surprise ouster, there was a brief moment over the weekened when it looked like he might get his old job back. The Verge was the first to report Saturday that Microsoft and two investment firms, Tiger Global and Thrive Capital, were pushing the OpenAI board to resign and make significant governance changes, thereby paving the way to reinstate Altman. OpenAI employees also threatened to quit en masse if Altman was not brought back. However, after a 5 p.m. Saturday deadline came and went, Altman’s ouster was complete.


On Sunday afternoon, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that the company had hired Altman to lead a new AI research team. In addition to Altman, Microsoft nabbed OpenAI President and Co-founder Greg Brockman, in addition to an unknown number of other OpenAI employees.

Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist and a member of the board of directors, led the ouster of Altman. It has been reported that Sutskever and Altman had a fundamental disagreement over how rapidly to commercialize AI technology that could prove extremely beneficial to humanity or potentially have deleterious consequences, with Altman supporting more rapid rollout and Sutskever favoring more caution.

“Sutskever has increasingly been worried about the long-term safety of OpenAI’s products and is building out an OpenAI team meant to research ways that systems of the future can be ‘aligned’ with human values, according to current and former OpenAI employees,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Meanwhile, the surprise departure of Altman has put the future of OpenAI in question. Earlier today, Wired magazine reported that more than 600 of OpenAI’s 700 employees signed a letter saying they would quit and join Altman and Brockman at Microsoft if the board didn’t resign.

Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in the startup and is its closest partner, was not made aware of Altman’s firing until one minute before the news hit Friday afternoon, according to a story in the New York Times. CEO Nadella reportedly was not happy about that.

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