In a shock sequence of corporate drama befitting of Succession, Sam Altman – the public face of ChatGPT maker OpenAI – was suddenly forced out.
Not being “consistently candid in his communications” was the charge laid at his feet by the board.
But within days, the 38-year-old was tipped for a return, those who toppled him seemingly harbouring second thoughts after the company president walked out and staff threatened to follow.
Given Mr Altman and OpenAI are at the forefront of the AI revolution, the sense of chaos should concern us all.
Here’s what we know about what’s going on – and what could happen next.
Mr Altman’s sacking was announced on Friday.
Coming just weeks after he’d represented OpenAI at the UK’s AI Safety Summit, and days after appearing at the company’s first conference for third-party developers, the timing was a shock.
The board was said to have “lost confidence” in him due to unspecified communications issues.
In this case, the board means just four people – including OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who had reportedly become concerned that Altman was prioritising company growth over AI safety.
Board members five and six – who were Mr Altman himself and then-OpenAI president Greg Brockman – opposed the firing but were outvoted.
“I loved my time at OpenAI,” Mr Altman posted on X as the news broke, describing it as “transformative”.
“Will have more to say about what’s next later.”
The immediate fallout
OpenAI made chief technology officer Mira Murati interim CEO.
But as hundreds of staff made their displeasure about Altman’s sacking known, she made attempts to secure his stunning return to stave off the revolt.
“OpenAI is nothing without its people,” many employees wrote together on X – including Ms Murati herself.
Mr Altman was reportedly keen on the idea of returning, with his brother Jack – also a start-up CEO, of HR firm Lattice – warning his detractors they were “betting against the wrong guy”.
But by Sunday, Mr Altman and Mr Brockman had joined OpenAI investor Microsoft to lead an AI research team.
Bloomberg reports the tech giant’s CEO Satya Nadella was “furious” and blindsided about the ousting.
OpenAI responded by hiring Emmett Shear, the former boss of streaming site Twitch, as Mr Altman’s replacement.
But the sense of panic at OpenAI was obvious, as more than 500 employees signed a letter threatening to quit.
Nothing encapsulated the chaos more than Mr Sutskever signing it, saying he “deeply regrets” the board’s decision.
Altman’s next move
Despite joining Microsoft, Mr Altman has left the door open for a return to OpenAI.
The two companies were already closely aligned, with the Windows maker investing $10bn in it earlier this year and using its GPT tech to reinvent its Bing search engine and Office products.
According to tech news website The Verge, citing multiple sources, Mr Altman and Mr Brockman are willing to return to OpenAI if the board members who staged the coup walk away.
That could leave a few seats on the board for Microsoft executives.
Mr Altman has suggested continued involvement with OpenAI in some capacity, posting: “We are all going to work together some way or other, and I’m so excited.”
What happens now?
With Mr Sutskever having changed tact, it would only take one more change of heart on OpenAI’s board to potentially pave the way for Mr Altman and Mr Brockman to return.
But if they don’t, the duo will seemingly continue their work at Microsoft instead – maybe joined by hundreds of old colleagues over the coming weeks.
Either way, Mr Altman’s goal of building artificial general intelligence – which refers to super-powerful AI capable of outperforming humans in a number of tasks – won’t be going anywhere.
Of course, some may wonder if Microsoft – not shy of a major acquisition – could simply buy OpenAI and bring the entire operation under one roof. It already owns a 49% stake.
The company would face major scrutiny from regulators, though, with the US, UK, and EU having all made it work extremely hard for its recent record $69bn purchase of gaming giant Activision Blizzard.
In the weeks before Mr Altman’s sacking, OpenAI had an estimated value of $80bn.
Meanwhile, Mr Shear, the new CEO, has reportedly promised to hire an “independent investigator” to look into what led to Mr Altman’s sacking.
In an internal note, seen by The Verge, he vowed to “dig into the entire process” and “generate a full report”.
The executive, a previously self-professed AI “doomer” who has warned of its existential threat to humanity, has claimed he has not been told why Mr Altman was dismissed.
Why the future of OpenAI matters
The San Francisco-based company has been around since 2015 and even then had some big names on its books, including Elon Musk.
He and Mr Altman were the first people on the board to guide the firm’s quest to develop “safe and beneficial” artificial general intelligence.
But it wasn’t until November 2022 that OpenAI was thrust into mainstream attention thanks to ChatGPT, attracting more than 100 million users in just a few months.
With AI tipped to have a similarly transformative impact on the world as the Industrial Revolution, Mr Altman has been rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful politicians as he looks to help shape potential regulation.
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Mr Altman hasn’t been shy of warning about the risks of AI, but is undoubtedly committed to pushing the boundaries and, perhaps more significantly to his exit, maximising its commercial potential.
The OpenAI developer conference he appeared at before his sacking was all about empowering third parties to leverage the firm’s GPT tech in their products – even building their own digital assistants.
And in September, the Financial Times reported ex-Apple designer Jony Ive was in talks with OpenAI to build the “iPhone of AI”.
Such projects would go against OpenAI’s non-profit origins. The firm launched a profit-focused arm in 2019, but it didn’t go down well with some of its original investors – including Musk, who quit.
Swapping Mr Altman for Mr Shear, who previously said he’s “in favour of slowing down” AI development, may be a sign OpenAI is about to return to its roots.
One thing that won’t be slowing down any time soon is the drama surrounding Mr Altman’s departure – a saga not even ChatGPT could have written, and one that probably still has a few twists to come.