After days of conflicting stories, the power struggle at OpenAI, the revolutionary artificial intelligence company behind ChatGPT, may be coming to an end after the formerly ousted Sam Altman was reinstated as chief executive officer on Tuesday night.
The electrifying saga which saw Mr. Altman’s original departure from OpenAI, a tense board battle, a series of hirings and firings and an open letter signed by hundreds of OpenAI employees threatening to quit sent shock waves across the tech industry.
The OpenAI leadership upheaval is a fast-moving story with many high-profile players and lots of money at stake. Here’s a breakdown of everything that’s happened so far.
Who started OpenAI?
OpenAI was founded in December 2015 by Mr. Altman, Mr. Brockman and Ilya Sutskever, alongside nine other individuals including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. The group collectively pledged $1-billion to start the venture.
It began as a non-profit research laboratory with the goal to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.”
The company’s model shifted in 2018 when it incorporated into a for-profit business, Open AI LP. It also released its first generation of the GPT language model for generating paragraphs of readable text. Around the same time, Mr. Musk, who had co-chaired its board, resigned in a move that the startup tied to eliminating a “potential future conflict for Elon” owing to Tesla’s work on building automated driving systems.
OpenAI is heralded with kicking off the generative AI era with the release of its ChatGPT chatbot in November 2022. The AI model has the ability to produce human-like text, images, video and music, and became one of the world’s fastest-growing software applications. It quickly generated both enthusiasm for its possibilities and criticism about AI systems, including concerns about how to ethically use the program in schools and offices.
Who is Sam Altman?
Mr. Altman is an American entrepreneur and investor who dropped out from Stanford University in 2005 after one year of studying computer science. His first venture was Loopt, a now-defunct location-based social media app. But he quickly rose to tech fame while running Y Combinator, a startup accelerator company that invested in several now major companies, including Airbnb, DoorDash, Dropbox, Instacart, Reddit, Stripe and Twitch.
After taking over as OpenAI’s CEO in May 2019, Mr. Altman became the face of the company and helped catapult ChatGPT to global recognition. In the past year, he became Silicon Valley’s most sought-after voice on the promise and potential dangers of artificial intelligence. He also went on a world tour to meet with government officials, drawing big crowds at public events as he discussed the risks of AI and attempts to regulate the emerging technology.
Why was Sam Altman fired from OpenAI?
On Nov. 17, OpenAI’s board said it had fired Mr. Altman after a review found he was “not consistently candid in his communications” with the board. “The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” the artificial intelligence company said in a statement posted to its website. The company did not provide more details, leaving industry analysts and tech watchers reading tea leaves in an effort to figure out what happened.
Along with the departure of Mr. Altman, former OpenAI co-founder and president Mr. Brockman said he was told he was being removed from the board. Later in the day he announced on X that he had quit the company.
Mr. Altman posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, shortly after the news broke: “i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people. will have more to say about what’s next later.”
i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people.— Sam Altman (@sama) November 17, 2023
will have more to say about what’s next later.
Mr. Altman has been vocal on his X account in the days after his sudden firing, showing support for his former employees in the form of heart emojis and commenting on priorities for the Microsoft and OpenAI partnership.
the openai leadership team, particularly mira brad and jason but really all of them, have been doing an incredible job through this that will be in the history books.— Sam Altman (@sama) November 20, 2023
incredibly proud of them.
satya and my top priority remains to ensure openai continues to thrive— Sam Altman (@sama) November 20, 2023
we are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers
the openai/microsoft partnership makes this very doable
What happened in the days after Sam Altman’s firing?
OpenAI had initially named its chief technology officer, Mira Murati, as interim CEO on Friday. But on Monday her name appeared on a letter that was also signed by hundreds of other OpenAI employees calling for the board’s resignation and Mr. Altman’s return.
OpenAI then named Emmett Shear as its interim chief executive officer on Monday in a surprise turn of events. The 40-year-old stepped down as CEO of Amazon.com-owned Twitch this March after more than 16 years at the live video streaming platform.
In his post on X, Mr. Shear wrote he had received a call offering him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to become interim CEO at OpenAI and shared a plan for the company’s next steps, saying he would look to reform the startup’s management team and hire an independent investigator to dig into Mr. Altman’s departure.
Today I got a call inviting me to consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to become the interim CEO of @OpenAI. After consulting with my family and reflecting on it for just a few hours, I accepted. I had recently resigned from my role as CEO of Twitch due to the birth of my…— Emmett Shear (@eshear) November 20, 2023
Also on Monday, Microsoft, which has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI and has rights to its current technology, moved to hired Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman to lead its new advanced AI research team. Microsoft chairman and CEO Satya Nadella wrote on X that he was “extremely excited” about the news.
Microsoft’s shares rose 2.1 per cent Monday and were nearing an all-time high upon the news of Mr. Altman joining the company.
We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners. We look forward to getting to know Emmett…— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) November 20, 2023
What is behind Sam Altman’s return to OpenAI?
On Tuesday, OpenAI said in a statement: “We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board.”
We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board of Bret Taylor (Chair), Larry Summers, and Adam D'Angelo.— OpenAI (@OpenAI) November 22, 2023
We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this.
Mr. Altman took to X to express his content: “i love openai, and everything i’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together.”
i love openai, and everything i’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together. when i decided to join msft on sun evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team. with the new board and w satya’s support, i’m…— Sam Altman (@sama) November 22, 2023
Mr. Brockman also wrote on X that he was returning to OpenAI and “getting back to coding” as early as Tuesday night. He also posted a group selfie of OpenAI employees along with the caption, “we are so back.”
Microsoft’s Mr. Nadella welcomed the changes: “We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance,” he said on X.
Who is on the OpenAI board?
OpenAI’s new board, which replaces the one that fired Mr. Altman on Friday, will be led by former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor, who also chaired Twitter’s board before its takeover by Elon Musk last year. The other members will be former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo.
The company’s previous board of directors, which refused to give specific reasons for why it fired Mr. Altman, consisted of Mr. D’Angelo, OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
One of the four board members who participated in Mr. Altman’s ouster, Mr. Sutskever, later expressed regret and joined the call for the board’s resignation. Mr. Sutskever said he “deeply” regretted his participation in the board’s actions and “will do everything … to reunite the company.”
I deeply regret my participation 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.— Ilya Sutskever (@ilyasut) November 20, 2023
With reports from The Associated Press and Reuters.