Hundreds of staff threatened to quit leading artificial intelligence company Open AI on Monday and join rival Microsoft, deepening a crisis triggered by the shock sacking of CEO Sam Altman.
The OpenAI board ousted Altman on Friday and he was quickly hired by Microsoft, where he will take the lead in developing a new advanced AI research team.
In an open letter, staff members called for the resignation of board members responsible for Altman’s sacking, saying they were “incapable” of overseeing the company.
But what led to all of this, and what does the future hold for OpenAI?
What is OpenAI?
OpenAI was founded in 2015 by entrepreneurs and investors, including Sam Altman, Greg Brockman and Tesla chief Elon Musk.
In 2018, Musk quit the project in 2018 following clashes with the board of directors.
OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit research laboratory, but was later transformed into a “capped profit” company.
Microsoft has been one of the company’s major financial backers and has invested more than US$10 billion (15.2 billion) in OpenAI.
OpenAI achieved worldwide attention with the November 2022 launch of ChatGPT, a language model open to the public, initially available free of charge.
What happened to Sam Altman?
Open AI says it pushed Altman out after a review found he was “not consistently candid in his communications” with the board of directors.
“The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” the company said in a statement on Friday.
Hundreds of staff have threatened to quit leading artificial intelligence company OpenAI. Credit: Costfoto/Sipa USA
In a post on X early on Saturday morning, Altman called what happened a “weird experience” and thanked his followers for the “outpouring of love”.
“It has been sorta like reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive,” Altman wrote.
ChatGPT’s explosion into public consciousness thrust Altman into the spotlight as a face of generative AI — technology that can produce novel imagery, passages of text and other media.
Altman has had talks with multiple heads of state to discuss AI’s potential and perils. On Thursday, he took part in a CEO summit at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco, where OpenAI is based.
He predicted AI will prove to be “the greatest leap forward of any of the big technological revolutions we’ve had so far”.
He also acknowledged the need for guardrails, calling attention to the existential dangers future AI could pose.
Why did OpenAI staff threaten to quit?
In a letter released to media, the vast majority of OpenAI’s 770-strong staff suggested they would follow Altman unless the board responsible for his departure resigned.
“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI,” the letter said.
“Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join.”
Among the signatories was Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and a member of the four-person board who pushed Altman out.
“I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions,” Sutskever said in a post on X. “I never meant to harm OpenAI.”
Another signatory was top executive Mira Murati, who was appointed to replace Altman as CEO when he was removed on Friday, but was herself cast aside for the job over the weekend.
Staff members posted on social media on Monday that up to 90 per cent of OpenAI’s employees signed the letter.
“We have more unity and commitment and focus than ever before. We are all going to work together some way or other, and I’m so excited,” Altman said on X.
What’s next for OpenAI?
The saga has cast uncertainty over the future of OpenAI in doubt, with many staff members set to leave, including co-founder Greg Brockman.
OpenAI’s statement said Brockman, the board’s chairman, would step down from that role but remain at the company as president.
But later on X, Brockman posted a message he sent to OpenAI employees in which he wrote, “based on today’s news, i quit.”
“Sam and I are shocked and saddened by what the board did today,” he wrote in another post.
OpenAI and Microsoft’s partnership appears to be continuing at the time of writing.