OpenAI faced a growing revolt among staff and investors calling for the resignation of three directors after a botched boardroom coup ousted chief executive Sam Altman from the world’s leading artificial intelligence company.
Employees said in a letter to the board that the directors had “undermined our mission and company” by the way they fired Altman and his co-founder Greg Brockman on Friday. The tally of signatures had increased to about 700 of OpenAI’s 770 staff by Monday afternoon, according to employees posting on social media site X. OpenAI did not respond to confirm the figure.
The turmoil at the world’s most high-profile AI start-up has marked a stunning reversal for a group that catapulted generative AI into the mainstream with the launch of ChatGPT nearly a year ago. Until last week, OpenAI was viewed as the global leader in developing and commercialising the technology, which is upending businesses worldwide. Now, its very future has been called into question.
After abortive talks to reinstate Altman on Sunday, in which he demanded the board resign as a price for his return, OpenAI’s board turned instead to Emmett Shear, co-founder of video-streaming service Twitch, as interim chief executive. Microsoft, the software company that is also OpenAI’s biggest investor, announced it had hired Altman and Brockman to head a new AI unit.
Altman indicated on Monday that he expected OpenAI to endure and was working with Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella to secure the start-up’s future.
Their top priority was to ensure OpenAI continued to thrive, Altman posted on X, adding: “we are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers [and] the openai/microsoft partnership makes this very doable”. It was “one team, one mission”, said the 38-year-old entrepreneur.
The hundreds of OpenAI staff who signed the letter said they had been offered positions in the new unit at Microsoft, and “will take this step imminently, unless all current board members resign, and the board appoints two new lead independent directors”.
Altman and Brockman were removed by the board’s four other members on Friday. By Monday, one of those board members, Ilya Sutskever, had aligned himself with the employees.
Sutskever, also the chief scientist at OpenAI, signed the letter from staff after first taking to social media to apologise for his role in firing Altman.
“I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions,” he wrote on X. “I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.”
The other remaining directors are Adam D’Angelo, the chief executive of Quora; technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley; and Helen Toner from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
Some of OpenAI’s most prominent venture investors were holding out hope Altman would return. The company’s board had made a “grave miscalculation”, wrote early OpenAI backer Vinod Khosla in a scathing editorial in The Information on Monday. Khosla later called on Shear to resign on his first day as interim chief executive.
“Every problem has a solution,” Thrive Capital founder Josh Kushner wrote on X. Thrive is lined up to be the lead buyer in a sale of OpenAI employees’ stock which had been expected to close in the coming weeks. That sale, a chance for staff to cash in on OpenAI’s success by selling to investors, was expected to involve up to $1bn of stock and give the company an $86bn valuation, people with knowledge of the plans said.
The share sale was now in the balance, with the weekend’s drama representing a material change in circumstances, but could yet go ahead as planned should Altman return, said one person with knowledge of the situation.
Rivals meanwhile are seeking to capitalise on the disarray within the company. In a social media post on Monday, Marc Benioff, the chief executive of software company Salesforce, asked OpenAI researchers to send him their CVs and offered to match their salaries.
OpenAI’s release of its ChatGPT chatbot a year ago touched off an AI boom that has drawn billions of dollars in investment and spawned dozens of start-ups.
ChatGPT uses so-called generative AI to respond to text, speech or image prompts — a technological leap seen by many in Silicon Valley as the most significant since the advent of the smartphone.
The exact reason for Altman’s ousting remains unclear, with OpenAI’s board saying only that he had not been “consistently candid”.
According to people familiar with the matter, his departure stemmed from concerns about his commitment to OpenAI’s mission of ensuring safe and beneficial AI.
A person with direct knowledge of the board’s decision said it had become “impossible to oversee” the co-founder. “The board reached the point where they couldn’t believe what Sam told them,” this person added.
Shear, who has publicly called for a slower rollout of AI, tried to quell reports that a dispute over safety was part of the argument. “The board did *not* remove Sam over any specific disagreement on safety,” he wrote on X. “I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercialising our awesome models.”
Shear wrote that he would hire an independent investigator to report on “the entire process leading up to this point” and could push for “significant governance changes if necessary”.
Nadella said his company remained committed to its partnership with OpenAI and was looking forward to “getting to know Emmett Shear and OpenAI’s new leadership team and working with them”.
Microsoft has committed more than $10bn in capital and infrastructure credits to OpenAI — though not all of that capital has been drawn down — and has embedded OpenAI’s powerful generative AI tools into its own software.
Shares of Microsoft closed at a record high on Monday after rising 2.1 per cent, reversing losses from late on Friday following the announcement of Altman’s firing.
Altman told the Financial Times this month he planned to raise further investment from the Seattle group, saying he had a “great partner” in Microsoft.