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How the chaos at ChatGPT maker OpenAI has unfolded as ousted CEO Sam Altman returns – and why it matters | Science & Tech News


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Sam Altman – the public face of ChatGPT maker OpenAI – has returned to the company just days after his shock ousting.

Not being “consistently candid in his communications” was the charge laid at his feet by the board when the stunning decision to remove him was announced on Friday.

But within days, the 38-year-old was tipped for a return, those who toppled him seemingly harbouring second thoughts after the company president walked out and staff threatened to follow.

And now, less than a week later, he is indeed back.

Given Mr Altman and OpenAI are at the forefront of the AI revolution, the sense of Succession-style chaos should concern us all.

Here’s everything we know – and why it matters.

Shock departure

Mr Altman’s sacking was announced in an unassuming OpenAI press release.

Coming just weeks after he’d represented the firm at the UK’s AI Safety Summit, and days after appearing at the company’s first conference for third-party developers, the timing was a shock.

The board was said to have “lost confidence” in him due to unspecified communications issues.

In this case, the board had meant just four people – including OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who had reportedly become concerned that Altman was prioritising company growth over AI safety.

Members five and six – Mr Altman himself and then-president Greg Brockman – opposed it but were outvoted.

“I loved my time at OpenAI,” Mr Altman posted on X as the news broke, describing it as “transformative”.

“Will have more to say about what’s next later.”

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at summit

The immediate fallout

OpenAI made chief technology officer Mira Murati interim CEO.

But as hundreds of staff made their displeasure about Altman’s sacking known, she made attempts to secure his stunning return to stave off the revolt.

“OpenAI is nothing without its people,” many employees wrote together on X – including Ms Murati herself.

Mr Altman was reportedly keen on the idea of returning. His brother Jack, also a start-up CEO, of HR firm Lattice, warned his detractors they were “betting against the wrong guy”.

But by Sunday, Mr Altman and Mr Brockman had joined OpenAI investor Microsoft to lead an AI research team.

Bloomberg reported the tech giant’s CEO Satya Nadella was “furious” and blindsided about the ousting.

OpenAI responded by hiring Emmett Shear, the former boss of streaming site Twitch, as Mr Altman’s replacement.

But the sense of panic at OpenAI was obvious, as more than 500 employees signed a letter threatening to quit.

Nothing encapsulated the chaos more than Mr Sutskever signing, saying he “deeply regrets” the board’s decision.

Altman’s homecoming

Despite joining Microsoft, Mr Altman left the door open for a return to OpenAI.

The two companies were already closely aligned, with the Windows maker investing $10bn in it earlier this year and using its GPT tech to reinvent its Bing search engine and Office products.

According to tech news site The Verge, citing multiple sources, Mr Altman and Mr Brockman were willing to return to OpenAI if the board members who staged the coup walked away.

Mr Nadella told CNBC “it’s very, very clear something has to change around governance”.

“We’ll have a good dialogue with their board on that,” he said.

Mr Altman suggested he’d stay involved with OpenAI in some capacity, posting: “We are all going to work together some way or other, and I’m so excited.”

OpenAI announced his return “in principle” on Wednesday morning (UK time) – and Mr Altman seemed to have got his way.

The company said there would be a “new initial board” of Bret Taylor, Larry Summers, and Adam D’Angelo.

“We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this,” it added.

Mr Summers is a former US treasury secretary, while Mr Taylor – the new chair – co-created Google Maps.

Mr Brockman will also be returning to the company.

What happens now?

Mr Altman has suggested his return means he won’t be working at Microsoft after all.

Mr Nadella appeared fine with that, saying he was “encouraged” by the changes to OpenAI’s board.

As for the old board, Mr Sutskever may be hoping his quick change of tact keeps him on side.

And then there’s Mr Shear, who will go down in history as one of Silicon Valley’s shortest-lived CEOs.

The executive, a previously self-professed AI “doomer” who has warned of its existential threat to humanity, had claimed he was not told why Mr Altman was dismissed.

“I am deeply pleased by this result,” he said of Mr Altman’s return.

“I’m glad to have been a part of the solution.”

FILE - The OpenAI logo is seen on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen displaying output from ChatGPT, March 21, 2023, in Boston. Several news organizations, writers and photographers groups are seeking regulations to govern the fast-moving artificial intelligence technology that threatens upheavals for their businesses. In an open letter sent on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, outlined priorities for setting rules on the technology, which is developing faster than regulators can keep up with.
ChatGPT launched in November 2022

Why the future of OpenAI matters

The San Francisco-based company has been around since 2015 and even then had some big names on its books, including Elon Musk.

He and Mr Altman were the first people on the board to guide the firm’s quest to develop “safe and beneficial” artificial general intelligence, which refers to super-powerful AI capable of outperforming humans in a number of tasks

But it wasn’t until November 2022 that OpenAI was thrust into mainstream attention thanks to ChatGPT, attracting more than 100 million users in just a few months.

With AI tipped to have a similarly transformative impact on the world as the Industrial Revolution, Mr Altman has been rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful politicians as he looks to help shape potential regulation.

Read more:
12 challenges with AI that ‘must be addressed’
We let an AI chatbot help write an article – here’s how it went

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Will AI mean ‘no job is needed’?

Mr Altman hasn’t been shy of warning about the risks of AI, but is undoubtedly committed to pushing the boundaries and, perhaps more significantly to the drama of recent days, maximising its commercial potential.

The OpenAI developer conference he appeared at before his sacking was all about empowering third parties to leverage the firm’s GPT tech in their products – even building their own digital assistants.

And in September, the Financial Times reported ex-Apple designer Jony Ive was in talks with OpenAI to build the “iPhone of AI”.

Such projects would go against OpenAI’s non-profit origins. The firm launched a profit-focused arm in 2019, but it didn’t go down well with some of its original investors – including Musk, who quit.

Swapping Mr Altman for Mr Shear, who previously said he’s “in favour of slowing down” AI development, looked like a sign OpenAI wanted to return to its roots.

One thing we should all hope slows down is the drama surrounding Mr Altman’s employment – a saga not even ChatGPT could have written, and one that sent one of the world’s most influential companies into meltdown.

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