OpenAI staff threaten mass exodus to join ex-CEO Altman


November 21, 2023 10:14 AM

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Hundreds of staff at OpenAI threatened to quit the leading artificial intelligence company on Monday and join Microsoft, deepening a crisis triggered by the shock sacking of CEO Sam Altman.

In a fast-moving sequence of events, Altman, who was ousted by the board on Friday, has now been hired by Microsoft where he will take the lead in developing a new advanced AI research team.

There was talk Monday that OpenAI is interested in Altman returning, and that he may be open to the idea under certain conditions.

"We want to partner with Open AI and we want to partner with Sam so irrespective of where Sam is he's working with Microsoft," chief executive Satya Nadella said in a streamed Bloomberg interview.

"That was the case on Friday. That's the case today. And we absolutely believe that will be the case tomorrow."

In a letter released to media, the vast majority of OpenAI's 770-strong staff suggested they would follow Altman unless the board responsible for his departure resigned.

"Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI," the letter said. "Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join."

A key AI executive at Microsoft confirmed that they all were welcome from OpenAI if the board that removed Altman doesn't resign.

Among the signatories was co-founder Ilya Sutskever, the company's chief scientist and a member of the four-person board who pushed Altman out.

"I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions," Sutskever said in a post on X, formally Twitter. "I never meant to harm OpenAI."

Another signatory was top executive Mira Murati, who was appointed to replace Altman as CEO when he was removed on Friday, but didn't last the weekend in the job.

"We are all going to work together some way or other, and I'm so excited," Altman said on X.

OpenAI has appointed Emmett Shear, a former chief executive of Amazon's streaming platform Twitch, as its new CEO despite pressure from Microsoft and other major investors to reinstate Altman.

After the startup's board sacked Altman, US media cited concerns that he was underestimating the dangers of its tech and leading the company away from its stated mission -- claims his successor has denied.

Nadella wrote on X that Altman will lead a new advanced AI research team at Microsoft, joined by OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman.

Global tech titan Microsoft has invested more than $10 billion in OpenAI and has rolled out the artificial intelligence pioneer's tech in its own products.

Nadella said Microsoft remains committed to its partnership with OpenAI.

The drama was the talk of Silicon Valley on Monday.

"I know that some people are going to hate me for this, but this is the best show I've seen in my life," added Miguel Fierro, the tech giant's Principal Data Scientist Manager.

Altman shot to fame with the launch of ChatGPT last year, which ignited a race to advance AI research and development, as well as billions being invested in the sector.

His sacking triggered several other high-profile departures from the company, as well as a reported push by investors to bring him back.

But OpenAI stood by its decision in a memo sent to employees Sunday night, saying "Sam's behavior and lack of transparency... undermined the board's ability to effectively supervise the company."

- 'Badly' handled -

Shear confirmed his appointment as OpenAI's interim CEO in a post on X on Monday, while also denying reports Altman had been fired over safety concerns regarding the use of AI technology.

"It's clear that the process and communications around Sam's removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust," Shear wrote.

Generative AI platforms such as ChatGPT are trained on vast amounts of data to enable them to answer questions, even complex ones, in human-like language.

They are also used to generate and manipulate imagery.

But the tech has triggered warnings about the dangers of its misuse -- from blackmailing people with "deepfake" images to the manipulation of images and harmful disinformation.

AI doomsayers blamed in OpenAI's undoing

OpenAI has gone from ruling the world of artificial intelligence with ChatGPT to chaos, its chief executive ousted seemingly for advancing too fast and too far with the risky technology.

The exit of Sam Altman set in motion a series of events that saw the upstart company's biggest investor, Microsoft, swoop in to hire the toppled CEO and begin a process of building an OpenAI clone in the Redmond, Washington-based tech giant.

In some ways the looming result to the weekend saga is hardly a surprise, with many wondering how the board members could be naive enough to think they could outmaneuver Altman.

Silicon Valley was left aghast by Altman's firing, with the investor community and OpenAI's own staff furious that the four-person board got in the way of going faster into the AI age.

"We are not happy about it. We want stability here," said Ryan Steelberg, CEO of Veritone, a company that helps firms develop artificial intelligence.

Instead of OpenAI becoming the new Apple or Google, the harsh critics see a deeply troubled startup that fell victim to the pearl-clutching of an incompetent board.

"We reached this point because minuscule risks have been hysterically amplified by the exotic thinking of sci-fi mindsets, and clickbait journalism from the press," veteran venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, an early investor in OpenAI, wrote in The Information.

- 'Fallible people' -

Other observers warned that the drama in San Francisco proved that AI was too vital to be left in the hands of its creators.

"This is an important reminder that as brilliant as the designers of tech like AI -- scientists or engineers -- are, they are still just fallible people," said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

"That is why it is important not to just defer to them on a technology that everyone agrees has significant risks even as it promises tremendous benefits," he added.

Gary Marcus, a respected AI expert, said OpenAI's civil war "highlights the fact that we can't really trust the companies to self-regulate AI where even their own internal governance can be deeply conflicted."

Government regulation, notably by the tougher-minded European Union, was needed more than ever, he added.

OpenAI was actually created in 2015 with the goal of being a counterweight to Google, which was by far the leader in developing AI technologies that mimic the operations of the human brain.

Though nothing is known for sure, assumptions are rife that Altman's increased efforts to monetize the company's leading GPT-4 model, all while keeping its inner functioning a secret, was becoming too problematic for the company's board.

Already, several senior staff at OpenAI deserted the enterprise in 2021 to build rival Anthropic over concerns that Altman was moving ahead too recklessly.

- 'OpenAI is done' -

Many are shocked that the board had the power it did, or were naive enough to think they could actually use it.

Three of those board members are thought to have connections to the effective altruism movement, which frets over the risks of AI, but that critics say is cut off from reality.

Whatever their beliefs, by Monday the board were overseeing a company in name only, with virtually the whole staff committed to a pledge of quitting the firm for Altman's project at Microsoft if the board refused to go.

"Unless OpenAI can block those departures, OpenAI is pretty much done at this point," analyst Rob Enderle told AFP.

This could mean a history-making victory for Microsoft, which has already seen its share price reach record levels over its ties to OpenAI.

"This is like the best possible scenario for them, and the OpenAI board I am sure is kicking itself. They were clearly detached from reality," said Carolina Milanesi, analyst at Creative Strategies.


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