Sam Altman to leave OpenAI after board finds he wasn’t ‘consistently candid’

AI coup: Sam Altman fired from OpenAI after board finds he wasn’t ‘consistently candid’

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Updated with potential reasons and new statements:

Sam Altman will step down from his role as chief executive of OpenAI LP after the company found that he “was not consistently candid” with the board.

The artificial intelligence developer announced the abrupt leadership change today. Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, will take over as interim CEO until a permanent appointment is made. The company has already begun searching for candidates. OpenAI President Greg Brockman said Friday he’s also leaving the company.

OpenAI said that Altman’s departure follows a review carried out by the board of directors. The review determined “that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities,” the company stated. “The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

Some observers have noted that the manner in which OpenAI managed the situation is quite unusual. High-profile tech firms’ boards rarely oust the CEO and, when they do, they often decide not to publicize the circumstances of the leadership change.

And it was sudden: The New York Times noted that Altman showed no indication of his departure when he appeared at an event in Oakland, California, on Thursday evening. Microsoft reportedly was not made aware of the decision until very shortly beforehand.

The board’s specific issues with Altman were not clear Friday afternoon, though later reports in the evening indicated that the board, in particular Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, felt Altman was moving too fast without adequately considering safety issues, an escalating concern for AI models.

Indeed, the starkness of the announcement suggests bigger issues than simply business disagreements or challenges. Sources told tech journalist and podcast host Kara Swisher that there was a “misalignment” of the profit and nonprofit adherents at OpenAI, and that the developer day was an issue. They also said there could be more major departures.

One interesting potential tell was right at the end of its announcement of Altman’s departure. OpenAI stated that “while the company has experienced dramatic growth, it remains the fundamental governance responsibility of the board to advance OpenAI’s mission and preserve the principles of its Charter.” OpenAI’s charter is a brief document in which the company commits to ensuring the safety of any artificial general intelligence, or AGI, system it might develop in the future.

In a subsequent post on X, Swisher suggested this might be at the crux of the clash: “Sources tell me chief scientist Ilya Sutskever was at the center of this. Increasing tensions with Sam Altman and Greg Brockman over role and influence and he got the board on his side.” She added: “The developer day and how the store was introduced was in inflection moment of Altman pushing too far, too fast. My bet: He’ll have a new company up by Monday.”

A story in The Information also suggested that Altman was seen as moving too fast without adequately considering safety issues. That said, some observers believe there’s more to it than that, given the stern wording of the board statement.

For his part, Altman posted on X that “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.”

Later in the evening, Brockman issued a statement on X (full text below) saying he and Sam were “shocked and saddened” by the board’s move and promised, “Greater things coming soon.”

OpenAI’s board includes Sutskever, Quora Inc. CEO Adam D’Angelo, technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, a director at the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Until today, Sam Altman and Brockman were also directors. Until Brockman said Friday that he’s leaving, the company said he was stepping down from the board but would continue working at OpenAI in his current role.

OpenAI launched in 2015 with $1 billion from a group of prominent backers to develop cutting-edge AI models. Altman, who was a member of the company’s founding team, became CEO in 2019. He earlier led the Y Combinator startup accelerator.

During Altman’s tenure, OpenAI launched its popular ChatGPT chatbot, which propelled it to the center of the fast-growing generative AI market. Thanks to the chatbot’s success, the company raised $10 billion from Microsoft Corp. in January at a $29 billion valuation. As of October, OpenAI reportedly had an annualized revenue run rate of $1.3 billion and was seeking a valuation as high as $86 billion.

Microsoft’s significant investment in OpenAI makes the leadership change a significant development for the software and cloud computing giant. Some commentators have expressed the view that Microsoft will actively take steps to mitigate the potential fallout. Its stock fell 1.7% today possibly in reaction to the OpenAI news.

Technology analyst Sarbjeet Johal noted that there was friction apparent between OpenAI and Microsoft at the AI phenom’s developer day last week. Also, Altman didn’t show up at Microsoft’s Ignite conference this week, somewhat surprising given that its ChatGPT-driven Copilot was announced across a wide range of Microsoft products. Johal added that OpenAI was getting threatened by open-source generative AI models such as Meta Platforms Inc.’s Llama.

Murati, OpenAI’s new interim CEO, joined the company in 2018. As CTO, she led the development of ChatGPT as well as other products such as the DALL-E series of image generation models. Murati already led three of OpenAI’s most important units, namely its research, product and AI safety groups, prior to her appointment to the top post today.

Here’s Brockman full statement on X:

Sam and I are shocked and saddened by what the board did today. Let us first say thank you to all the incredible people who we have worked with at OpenAI, our customers, our investors, and all of those who have been reaching out. We too are still trying to figure out exactly what happened. Here is what we know: – Last night, Sam got a text from Ilya asking to talk at noon Friday. Sam joined a Google Meet and the whole board, except Greg, was there. Ilya told Sam he was being fired and that the news was going out very soon. – At 12:19pm, Greg got a text from Ilya asking for a quick call. At 12:23pm, Ilya sent a Google Meet link. Greg was told that he was being removed from the board (but was vital to the company and would retain his role) and that Sam had been fired. Around the same time, OpenAI published a blog post. – As far as we know, the management team was made aware of this shortly after, other than Mira who found out the night prior. The outpouring of support has been really nice; thank you, but please don’t spend any time being concerned. We will be fine. Greater things coming soon.

Altman subsequently added on X: “i love you all. today was a weird experience in many ways. but one unexpected one is that it has been sorta like reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive. the outpouring of love is awesome. one takeaway: go tell your friends how great you think they are.”

With reporting from Robert Hof

Photo: OpenAI

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