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The artificial intelligence landscape will never be the same after the extraordinary turmoil at OpenAIthe startup that sparked a technological arms race by launching ChatGPT almost a year ago.
The OpenAI Dashboard ousted Sam Altman as CEO on Friday, surprising employees and investors. His departure set off a series of surprising events, as the board briefly considered and then rejected a proposal to bring him back.
Microsoft, the company’s largest investor, announced on Sunday that hire Altman and his co-founder, Greg Brockman, to run a new research lab, an apparent break in the close relationship between OpenAI and the tech giant, which invested $13 billion in the startup. Most OpenAI employees have “threatened to abandon ship and join Microsoft.”
The weekend’s turmoil also highlighted an unresolved debate within OpenAI and the broader tech community: is artificial intelligence the most important new technology since web browsers, or is it potentially dangerous to humanity, or both? ?
Today, with the help of Cade Metz, Kevin Roose and their colleagues on the Times tech team, we’ll tell you where this fast-moving story is and where it could go. Warning: There may be more plot twists.
What just happened?
On Friday, Altman was abruptly fired as CEO of OpenAI for reasons that remain unclear. Some technology observers compared the shock to when Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985.
“Simply put, Sam’s behavior and lack of transparency in his interactions with the board undermined the board’s ability to effectively oversee the company in the way it was directed to do,” the OpenAI board said. in a memo.
Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, was named interim CEO.
Greg Brockman, another co-founder, was stripped of his chairmanship and resigned.
Investors in OpenAI, who have little power due to the company’s peculiar corporate governance structure (more on this below), began planning a way for Altman to return.
Talks to bring Altman back failed and OpenAI’s board of directors named its second interim chief within two days. Emmett Shear, former CEO of streaming service Twitch, replaced Murati.
Hours later, Microsoft said it would hire Altman and Brockman to run an advanced research lab at the tech giant. Altman wrote on platform X, formerly Twitter, that “the mission continues.”
By Monday morning, nearly all of OpenAI’s nearly 800 employees had signed a letter saying they could resign to join Altman’s new project at Microsoft unless the startup’s board resigned, three people who saw the letter told Cade. letter.
What really happened?
Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, who is also a co-founder and board member, was increasingly concerned that OpenAI’s technology could be dangerous and that Altman was not paying enough attention to that risk, three told Cade. people familiar with his thinking.
Kevin wrote that the board “was concerned that Altman was moving too quickly to build powerful and potentially harmful AI systems, and stopped him.”
In another plot twist, Suction spoons wrote on X early Monday morning: “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. “I love everything we have built together and will do everything I can to bring the company together.”
In short, we still don’t know exactly what happened this weekend or the end result of all the turmoil.
The ‘messy’ history of OpenAI
Altman, Brockman and Sutskever created OpenAI in 2015 along with nine other people, including Elon Musk. The group founded the AI lab as a nonprofit, saying that unlike a traditional technology company (e.g., Microsoft), it would not be driven by commercial incentives.
In 2018, after Musk split from OpenAI, Altman transformed the lab into a for-profit company controlled by the nonprofit and its board of directors. Over the next few years, he raised the billions of dollars the company needed to create things like ChatGPT.
“OpenAI has always been a messy company,” said Casey Newton, Kevin’s co-host on the “Hard Fork” podcast. Musk fell out with the company and ended up walking away; This year he founded an artificial intelligence company called xAI. Another group of people who left OpenAI started anthropicanother competitor.
“In the AI world, there are a lot of disputes,” Casey said, “and they often end up with people slamming doors and often starting their own AI companies.”
OpenAI’s unusual corporate structure also appears to have played a role in Altman’s ouster. OpenAI is controlled by the board of directors of a nonprofit organization that can decide the company’s leadership. Investors like Microsoft have no formal way to influence decisions and many top leaders, including Altman, do not own shares in the company.
“That scenario makes this type of drama more likely,” Casey said.
The effective altruistic movement
For years, a community of AI researchers and activists (many of them affiliated with the effective altruism movement, whose followers think reason and data can be used to determine how to do the most good) have warned that AI systems are becoming becoming too powerful and that runaway AI could pose an existential threat to humanity.
People with these fears, sometimes derided as “doomers,” were once considered outcasts. But in recent years, they have been moving closer to the mainstream, gathering signatures on open letters and warning regulators to take AI safety seriously.
Ilya Sutskever, the chief scientist at OpenAI, who led the coup against Altman is not an effective altruist, but he appears to have been motivated by similar fears. And two of the board members who supported Altman, Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner all have ties to effective altruistic groups.
And if this move sounds familiar, it may be due to the travails of Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced cryptocurrency mogul. who also supported effective altruism.
What does Microsoft gain from this?
Microsoft was said to be particularly alarmed by Altman’s sudden firing and led the unsuccessful campaign to reinstate him. The tech giant, along with other OpenAI investors such as Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital, learned of Altman’s firing just a minute before the announcement.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was reportedly deeply involved in the talks. On Sunday night, he said Microsoft remained “committed” to OpenAI, but emphasized that the new unit Altman and Brockman would lead within Microsoft would be “setting a new pace for innovation,” in an apparent contrast to the desire for caution. of the OpenAI board of directors in developing AI technology.
Kevin said that Nadella finished the weekend as a winner:
“On Friday, when Altman was fired, it looked like Nadella might lose one of his most powerful allies,” he wrote. “Microsoft invested $13 billion in OpenAI and, under Mr. Altman’s leadership, the company had become a key partner of Microsoft. “Its technology is the backbone of many AI services, such as the company’s Copilot AI suite of products, on which Microsoft is betting the future of its business.”
Nadella “clearly would have preferred that Altman be reinstated,” Kevin concluded. “But when it became clear that wasn’t happening, he did the best thing he could do: swooped in to offer jobs to Altman, Brockman and his loyalists.”
Microsoft shares, which plunged following news of Altman’s firing on Friday, recovered its value on Monday and set a new record.
Casey and Kevin discussed on this weekend’s edition of “Hard Fork” how Altman’s stature in Silicon Valley allowed him to recruit many top talent for OpenAI. The other side of the coin: his absence could hamper the company’s fortunes.
“There were a lot of people who went to work because they worked for Sam Altman,” Casey said. “On Monday they are going to go work for someone else.”
The letter from employees who threatened to join Altman’s new project at Microsoft if the OpenAI board of directors did not resign, interestingly, was also signed by Sutskever.
“Before Friday, the company was the hottest name in tech, with a famous leader, a well-known product in ChatGPT, and a killer lineup of AI talent that was the envy of Silicon Valley giants.” Kevin wrote.
But now “the company is in chaos. Its top leaders are gone. Morale is destroyed.”
The company also continues to rely heavily on Microsoft for its computing power. Starting today, Kevin noted, Microsoft “will have a mini-OpenAI growing within it, led by Altman and staffed by former OpenAI employees.”
“The OpenAI board of directors can be satisfied with this result; after all, they chose him, even after having the chance to back out. But they seem foolish for not explaining why Altman was fired, and until they share more information, it’s hard to imagine the bases aligning.”
— Reports of Cade Metz, Kevin Roose, mike isaac, Jason Karaian, Juan Koblin and Kevin Granville.