What Sam Altman’s Firing Means For The Future Of OpenAI

Sam Altman always insisted that he wasn’t the most important person at OpenAI despite being its CEO. As he traveled the world this year meeting world leaders—the world’s unofficial ambassador of AI—Altman would soft-pedal his role, even as he stole glances at his phone to keep up with what was happening in OpenAI’s luxe San Francisco offices.

“We have an incredibly great team here that can do a lot of things, so mostly, I defer to them,” he told me in May when I asked him how the company ran in his absence. “But some things only a CEO can do—some HR thing of the moment, or you have to kill some project, or something with a major partner.” Those items would accumulate on his phone and at the end of the day he’d bat out responses. Then he would go back to speechifying, meeting developers, and taking tea with prime ministers.

On Friday, the mother of all “HR things of the moment” hit Sam Altman like a Cybertruck. Around midday, according to OpenAI cofounder and Altman ally Greg Brockman, the board of directors of the nonprofit that governs the AI company suddenly fired its CEO. A detail-free statement more worthy of a company called ClosedAI said that the directors “concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.” An internal memo to OpenAI staff, first reported by Axios, later said the move wasn’t a “response to malfeasance” but offered little further explanation.

It gradually leaked out that Altman’s exit was supported by chief scientist Ilya Sutskever and CTO Mura Murati, who became interim CEO. Before Friday night was through, Brockman, OpenAI’s president, had quit the company and reports came that several other key employees were leaving, too.

With more shoes still to drop than a Nike clearance sale, it’s too soon to know precisely what’s next for OpenAI. But already the apparent boardroom coup stands with Apple’s 1985 dismissal of Steve Jobs as the most shocking execution in Silicon Valley history. From studying OpenAI closely this year for WIRED’s October cover story, I can say some things about the impact of Altman’s loss.

First, it’s important to remember that OpenAI was founded by Altman and Elon Musk to fulfill a mission. “The organization is trying to develop a human-positive AI. And because it’s a nonprofit, it will be owned by the world,” Altman told me in December 2015, just before the project was revealed to the world.

Though it seemed clear that Altman was the primary instigator, he was not yet OpenAI’s leader. But the company was squarely under his bailiwick: OpenAI was to be part of the research wing of the startup incubator Y Combinator, where Altman was CEO. Altman had started the division to chase the dream of using tech to solve the world’s knottiest problems when he became YC’s top executive. The original plan for OpenAI was to gather a relatively low number of the world’s best AI scientists and discover the keys to artificial general intelligence able to outperform humans on every dimension, inside a structure that gave ownership of this unimaginably powerful technology to the people, not giant corporations.

Rocky Start

OpenAI floundered in its early years, struggling to come up with a scheme that made leaps, not baby steps, toward its goal. In early 2018, Altman turned down Musk’s bid to take over the company, and put himself in the hot seat as CEO, easing out of Y Combinator to make the quest for AI the focus of his energies. As he told me later, he realized that humanity had the chance to create AGI only once, and he wanted in. Under his guidance, the company transformed itself from a small research lab to the world’s leading developer of the century’s most powerful technology. After ChatGPT’s debut, Altman was the face of not just OpenAI but the poster child for artificial intelligence’s promise and potentially dangerous power. Inside Silicon Valley, he was arguably the tech industry’s most admired leader.

Can OpenAI maintain its track record of breakthroughs without him? Altman is not a scientist, so it’s unsurprising that he did not directly coauthor any of the company’s significant technical achievements. But his dedication to the quest for AGI made him a faithful servant and cheerleader of OpenAI’s machine-learning mavens. When it comes to algorithms, the heart of the company is Sutskever, an AI pioneer whose passion to create AGI is just as strong as Altman’s. I saw the dynamic exemplified when OpenAI gave me a preview of how its text generator GPT-3 could write code. Altman first outlined the significance of the product, framing its place in the great journey toward general intelligence, and then excused himself as Sutskever and his technical team went through the demo and explained the magic behind it.

Altman was more directly critical in addressing an existential challenge for OpenAI when it became clear that systems like GPT-3 could open a breakthrough new era in AI that we now identify with ChatGPT. Training such large language models would require billions of dollars and immense computing infrastructure. Altman executed a pivot to an unusual corporate structure where a for-profit corporation controlled by the original nonprofit’s board took over the mission of building AGI. He also struck a transformational $13 billion partnership with Microsoft that gave OpenAI funding and access to its servers and AI chips.

These moves set OpenAI on a path that made it the phenomenon that it became in the past year—but one that apparently, for some insiders, looked like it was morphing into the kind of corporate giant OpenAI was created to counterweight. Altman’s departure this week potentially imperils its relationship with Microsoft, whose CEO Satya Nadella publicly bromanced Altman even as recently as OpenAI’s developer conference last week. Though Microsoft released a statement from Nadella reaffirming its support of OpenAI on Friday, he has to be unhappy to see a project he has bet billions and his own company’s future on in such turmoil.

Power Player

Another of Altman’s achievements was to woo politicians and world leaders in a way that tech leaders have failed at as the industry’s power has grown. US senator Richard Blumenthal was positively gushing when he told me how Altman showed him an early version of ChatGPT and offered to work with the Senate to help regulate AI. Altman the AI ambassador similarly charmed leaders around the world. The French digital minister said on X today that the unemployed Altman is welcome to bring his quest for beneficial AI to France. OpenAI, meanwhile, will have to rebuild the relations that Altman forged with government officials, as well as partners and developers.

Murati is a deft communicator, and she may well do a great job maintaining OpenAI’s partnerships and representing the company as nations around the world boot up regulatory apparatuses to constrain AI. But a big part of her new job will be explaining why OpenAI deserves to be trusted after a disturbingly opaque change of administration that created a very public mess. An X post by AI scientist Pedro Domingos puts the question bluntly: “These bunglers want to be in charge of humanity’s safety?”

Altman’s ouster shows an organization that was meant to align superintelligent AI with humanity failing to align the values of even its own board members and leadership. Adding a profit-seeking component to the nonprofit project turned it into an AI powerhouse. Launching products was supposed to provide not only profits but also opportunities to learn how to better control and develop beneficial AI. Now it’s unclear whether the current leadership thinks that can be done without breaching the project’s original promise to create AGI safely.

Murati faces the challenge of convincing OpenAI’s staff and backers that it still has a workable philosophy for developing AI. She must also feed the company’s hunger for cash to operate the expansive infrastructure behind projects like ChatGPT. At the time he was pink-slipped, Altman was reportedly seeking billions of new investment, in a funding round to be led by Thrive Capital. The company is undoubtedly less attractive to funders than it was only 24 hours ago. (Thrive’s CEO, Joshua Kushner, did not respond to an email.)

In addition, anyone whose CEO nameplate includes the tag “interim” will face additional hurdles in anything they do. The sooner OpenAI appoints a permanent leader, the better.

Starting Over

Whoever OpenAI’s new leader turns out to be, they look set to inherit a team riven by whether they stand with the current leaders, Sutskever and Murati, or the departed bosses, Altman and Brockman. One of the three researchers reported to have quit over the putsch was director of research Jakub Pachocki, a coinventor of GPT-4—a crucial loss, and we can expect more to follow.

OpenAI may now be at a severe disadvantage in the fierce race for AI talent. Top researchers are being secured by multimillion-dollar payment packages, but for the most passionate, money is a secondary consideration to the question of how more powerful AI is to be developed and deployed. If OpenAI is seen as a place ridden with palace intrigues that distract from deciding how best to create and disseminate humanity’s most consequential invention, top talent will be reluctant to commit. Elite researchers might instead look to Anthropic, an AI developer started by ex-OpenAI employees in 2021—or maybe whatever new project Altman and Brockman start.

Altman’s trajectory until now has been a classic hero’s journey in the Joseph Campbell sense. From the moment I first met him, when he came to my Newsweek office in 2007 as CEO of a startup called Loopt, he exuded a burning passion to fulfill technology’s biggest challenges and also a striking personal humility. When I accompanied him in London this year during his whirlwind tour to promote “human-positive” AI—and yet also recommend that it be regulated to prevent disaster—I saw him addressing crowds, posing for selfies, and even engaging a few protesters to hear out their concerns. But I also sensed that the task was stressful, possibly triggering one of his periodic migraine headaches, like the one he fought off when testifying before the Senate.

Just last week, Altman appeared to have mastered the prodigious challenges that came with his new power and prominence. At OpenAI’s developer day on November 6, he was confident and meticulously rehearsed as he introduced a raft of new products, laying claim to the technosphere’s ultimate peacock perch: a showman unveiling mind-bending advances in the mode of Steve Jobs. It seemed that Altman finally felt at home in the spotlight. But then the lights went out. Sam Altman will have to create AGI somewhere else. OpenAI may still be in the hunt—but only after it picks up the pieces.

About the author: Admin Verified Member Verified Professional Verified Black Owned
We created this site to help Black-Owned Businesses in the USA.

Get involved!

Get Connected!
Join our Community and Expand your audience and get to know New Black-Owned-Business!


No comments yet