On November 20, 2023, a significant upheaval unfolded at OpenAI, the prominent artificial intelligence (AI) company, as hundreds of its staff threatened to resign and join Microsoft. This mass exodus was sparked by the abrupt dismissal of OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman on November 17, who subsequently announced his plans to establish an AI subsidiary at Microsoft.
In a strongly worded letter, some of OpenAI’s top executives expressed their dissatisfaction with the current board and demanded its replacement. The letter, initially disclosed to Wired, accused the board of incompetence in overseeing OpenAI, leading to a loss of trust among senior staff members.
Among the signatories were influential figures like Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist, and Mira Murati, who briefly assumed the CEO role after Altman’s removal before facing demotion over the weekend.
The letter revealed that Microsoft had assured the departing OpenAI employees of positions at the new subsidiary led by Sam Altman. Reports suggested that up to 500 of OpenAI’s 770 employees had endorsed the letter.
Despite pressure from Microsoft and other major investors to reinstate Altman, OpenAI appointed Emmett Shear, a former CEO of Amazon’s Twitch streaming platform, as its new CEO. This decision came in the face of reports that Altman was dismissed due to concerns about underestimating the risks associated with OpenAI’s technology and deviating from its stated mission.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella confirmed Altman’s move to Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. Altman’s departure had triggered a series of high-profile exits from OpenAI and prompted investor efforts to bring him back.
Sam Altman’s behavior
OpenAI defended its decision in a memo to employees, citing concerns about Sam Altman’s behavior and lack of transparency, which, according to The New York Times, had undermined the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company.
Emmett Shear, in a post on X, confirmed his appointment as OpenAI’s interim CEO on November 20. He denied reports suggesting Altman’s dismissal was related to safety concerns about AI technology. Shear acknowledged the mishandling of the communication surrounding Altman’s removal, which had eroded trust within the organization.
Microsoft, having invested over $10 billion in OpenAI, expressed its commitment to the partnership and confidence in the product roadmap. OpenAI faces fierce competition in the AI space from tech giants like Google and Meta, as well as startups, in the race to develop advanced AI models.
Generative AI platforms, exemplified by ChatGPT, have raised concerns about potential misuse, from creating “deepfake” images for blackmail to manipulating imagery and spreading harmful disinformation. The incident highlights the complex dynamics and challenges in the rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence.