OpenAI boardroom coup: Sam Altman fired, hired by Microsoft to head new advanced AI research unit

  • Sam Altman fired from OpenAI after accusations of not being “consistently candid”.
  • Altman then entered talks to be rehired after backlash from investors, including Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella.
  • Altman would consider it, if the board is booted instead, according to reports.
  • Altman hired by Microsoft, along with Greg Brockman and other OpenAI employees, to lead a new advanced AI research team.

UPDATE: [November 20, 2023; 09.52 GMT]

Sam Altman, former CEO at OpenAI who was fired by the board on November 17, 2023, will join Microsoft as CEO of a “new advanced AI research team”, according to an announcement made by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Greg Brockman, formerly the president at OpenAI who was fired and then quit on the same day Altman was ousted, will join Altman at the new setup, along with other unnamed OpenAI employees.

Emmet Shear, formerly the CEO at streaming platform Twitch, will step in to OpenAI as CEO, replacing the interim CEO Mira Murati, formerly, and now again, the company’s chief technology officer.

In one of the most dizzying weekends Silicon Valley has ever seen, Sam Altman, the darling of the generative AI movement, the poster boy for this new era of complete computing, was fired, brought in for talks about his rehiring, and then called for the board to be fired instead.

If those discussions pan out, it would be one of the most dramatic boardroom backfires of recent times. The Netflix writers are surely already furiously scribbling.

Why was Sam Altman fired from OpenAI?

The man lauded as a genius by many tech pundits and who will be remembered as launching the generative AI era into the mainstream consciousness with ChatGPT, was fired from OpenAI, the company he founded in 2015, after the board decided that “he was not consistently candid in his communications … hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”

While media newsrooms went into overdrive trying to define the whys and the what nows, reports almost immediately started circling about key investors in OpenAI, including Microsoft, which has poured US$10 billion into the company, disagreeing with the board, wanting Altman back.

Also read: Teenagers’ AI Startup Receives Major Backing from OpenAI’s CEO

The speed with which he was given the boot shocked many. “The manner in which Altman was fired – abruptly, opaquely and without warning to some of OpenAI’s largest stakeholders and partners – defied logic,” wrote David Goldman for CNN.

“Silicon Valley leaders are calling Sam Altman’s firing the biggest tech scandal since Apple fired Steve Jobs—but the leading theory about the drama at OpenAI tells a different story,” wrote Nick Lichtenberg and Irina Ivanova for Fortune.

Ilya Sutskever OpenAI
Ilya Sutskever left Google to join OpenAI as a co-founder, and has apparently been a key player in the Altman firing.

Altman vs Sutskever, fast vs slow

After the dust settled, the strongest theory was that OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever voiced fears over Altman’s high-speed, profit-centric direction, and the board agreed. Sutskever has long been a cautious advocate for gen AI endeavors, and preferred a go-slow, safety-first approach.

What will Sam Altman do now? Where will he go? Will Sam Altman start a new company? were just some of the questions being fired from every corner.

Also read: OpenAI launches GPT Store for personal AI chatbots without coding

Greg Brockman, the former president of OpenAI and who quit at the same time Altman was fired, also said neither of them had seen it coming. “Sam and I are shocked and saddened by what the board did today,” he wrote on X. “We too are still trying to figure out exactly what happened.”

Altman may return to OpenAI, if the board goes

When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985, it took more than 10 years for him to be rehired. Altman’s rehiring at OpenAI was being discussed within a day, and Altman wasted no time in using this about face to make some demands of his own: I’ll stay, but the board must go, the Wall Street Journal reported him as saying.

The 38-year-old’s appearance at the OpenAI headquarters over the weekend – he posted a picture on X holding a guest security badge with the caption: “First and last time I ever wear one of these” – has added more fuel to the conflagration of questions and guesses being made.

Wherever this goes next, it certainly looks like Altman will not be the one with egg on his face. Bloomberg reported that Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is fully behind Altman’s return. “Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been in touch with Altman and pledged to support him in whatever steps he takes next,” the report said.


James Durston

James Durston is the Editor-in-Chief for Blue Tech Wave, and a former editor and journalist for some of the world's biggest international media organisations.

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