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Sam Altman Fired! How the AI World Is Set To Change (Again)

Sam Altman

On November 17, OpenAI released a statement regarding the leadership transition:

Mr. Altman's departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.

Sam Altman, the man who took a once non-profit organization to a valuation of nearly $86 billion, was fired yesterday on a Google Meet call (yes, even they don't use MS Teams).

Here is what we know, the speculations, and what I think can happen in the future.

What We Know

Photo by Mojahid Mottakin on Unsplash

Here is a summary of what OpenAI announced:

  • Sam Altman was fired from the CEO position.
  • CTO Mira Murati was appointed as interim CEO.
  • "As a part of this transition, Greg Brockman will be stepping down as chairman of the board and will remain in his role at the company, reporting to the CEO."

Greg Brockman, co-founder and President of OpenAI, then, tweeted this message that he sent to the OpenAI team:

Greg Brockman's tweet

Soon after Greg's resignation, three senior OpenAI researchers Jakub Pachocki, Aleksander Madry, and Szymon Sidor told associates they had resigned.

We also know exactly how the process went through, courtesy of another Greg Brockman tweet:

Sam and I are shocked and saddened by what the board did today.

Let us first say thank you to all the incredible people who we have worked with at OpenAI, our customers, our investors, and all of those who have been reaching out.

We too are still trying to figure out exactly what happened. Here is what we know:

--- Last night, Sam got a text from Ilya asking to talk at noon Friday. Sam joined a Google Meet and the whole board, except Greg, was there. Ilya told Sam he was being fired and that the news was going out very soon.

--- At 12:19pm, Greg got a text from Ilya asking for a quick call. At 12:23pm, Ilya sent a Google Meet link. Greg was told that he was being removed from the board (but was vital to the company and would retain his role) and that Sam had been fired. Around the same time, OpenAI published a blog post.

--- As far as we know, the management team was made aware of this shortly after, other than Mira who found out the night prior.

The outpouring of support has been really nice; thank you, but please don't spend any time being concerned. We will be fine. Greater things coming soon.

This is an uncanny reminder of the iconic ouster of Steve Jobs (also Altman's idol) from Apple. There are no financial reasons for Altman or anyone from OpenAI to be fired.

Why was Sam Altman fired?

This will probably be answered in Netflix's next documentary titled 'Altman' --- just kidding, but, I'm pretty sure there will an awesome documentary or even a movie in the next few months on this.

Meme from @IAmAdiFuchs

The Speculations

We can only try collating facts and insider comments to put together an approximate image of why this has happened.

OpenAI's announcement blaming Altman's lack of candor for his ousting is just too small a reason or an oversimplification of what has been going on. If the board is trying to indicate that Altman has taken decisions independently that went against the policies of OpenAI, we're in for a long ride with the US judicial system.

The lack of aggression i.e. shocking accusations or revelations from both sides is an indicator that both parties have something to hide and can damage each other.

Sam, Greg, or any other resigning scientists will do fine. Their inbox must be already flooded.

But, the general user of OpenAI's product will be ever-curious until they find a good enough answer.

According to initial analyses, this episode looks like a 'profit vs ethics' debate. Altman might have been too ambitious for the board's liking. The board of directors consists of OpenAI's chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, and three non-employees: Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

Altman has actively been seeking funding from the sovereign wealth funds of the Middle East to launch AI chips; a move that would bring OpenAI directly in competition with companies like Nvidia. He has also been communicating with SoftBank Group's Chairman, Masayoshi Son, to garner investment for AI hardware. It's a venture that is planned in collaboration with Jony Ive who was integral in designing the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and other iconic products.

(Fun Fact: Jony Ive's firm is now hired by the Agnelli family to work on Ferrari vehicles)

"It sounded as though there were some ethical concerns which pushed the board to do something," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi told AFP.

The Informationreported yesterday that there had been internal arguments about AI safety at OpenAI shortly before Altman's removal. Many employees reportedly disagreed about whether the company was developing AI safely.

According to the alleged transcript (accessed by The Information) from the meeting that happened after Altman was fired, some employees asked Ilya Sutskever whether this move was part of a hostile takeover. Some asked if it was because Altman was moving too fast towards profit disregarding safety.

Microsoft, a close partner of OpenAI, was blindsided about this decision and learned about this just minutes before the official blog post.

All these evidences offer clues as to why the board was in disagreement with Altman but still fail to paint a full picture; a picture that might or might not get clearer in the coming days.

The Future

Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

Dan Ives from Wedbush wrote this on X:

Altman out as CEO of OpenAI a shocker but ultimately Microsoft will just have more control of the situation in our view given ownership stake. Altman a key to getting to where the platform is but we see little concern going forward with him gone. A year ago different story.

The roadmap for OpenAI is already defined for the next few years. Super-capable people such as CTO Mira Murati still lead the company. The investments have allowed OpenAI to cement its position as the leading AI company in the world.

Another fact is wherever Sam goes money, belief, and users will follow. Sam Altman has established himself as the poster-boy of modern AI. He's the face that people have grown familiar with.

Altman's next move will be incredibly interesting. He might not start a new company altogether because of the risks involved. He might also not make a dramatic decision to switch his field from AI to nuclear energy advancements.

I did not pull nuclear energy out of thin air. Altman is chairman of the board for Helion, a company focused on developing nuclear fusion, and Oklo, a nuclear fission company.

Altman will stay in AI and lead an existing player's AI ambitions, that is my prediction. Let's take a look at existing options:

  • Microsoft, a leading investor in OpenAI, also has its own suite of AI products now rebranded as 'Copilot' which makes use of OpenAI's LLMs.
  • Meta launched the powerful Llama 2 LLM and is actively working to promote its Meta AI ecosystem.
  • Google's only popular public AI product is Bard, ChatGPT's competitor, but it has also been working on the Gemini LLM whose release has been delayed multiple times.
  • Anthropic is an AI company, a direct competitor to OpenAI, but much smaller. Amazon and Google have committed billions of dollars of investment to catch up with Microsoft.

The progress that OpenAI has made over the last couple of years under Altman's leadership has changed the collective world. Sam Altman, being the ambitious person that he is, will like to remain the face of this AI revolution. His decision will lie on this single point --- 'who can provide me the most resources to go crazy with AI with minimal interference?'

As for the average user like me or you, nothing changes in the short term, GPT-3.5 for free, GPT-4 for Plus users, and engineers actively working on GPT-5. Eventually, if a company like Anthropic somehow manages to dethrone OpenAI with the right backing, there will be a huge 'What If?' moment. What if Altman had stayed? What if Altman had got that Middle East and SoftBank investment? Questions that can never be answered.

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