Microsoft has hired Sam Altman to power up its artificial intelligence research efforts just days after the co-founder of OpenAI was ousted as CEO in a chaotic boardroom coup.
Greg Brockman, another co-founder of the company behind ChatGPT, is also joining Microsoft (MSFT) — the startup’s biggest financial backer. Brockmann quit as OpenAI president after Altman was fired.
Meanwhile, Emmett Shear, the former CEO of Amazon’s streaming service Twitch, will join OpenAI as interim CEO.
“We look forward to getting to know Emmett Shear,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “And we’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team.”
Microsoft is OpenAI’s biggest investor. Altman will be the CEO of the “new group,” Nadella said in his post, which brought to an end a weekend of feverish speculation that the OpenAI board could perform a dramatic U-turn and rehire the high-flying Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor.
In a post on X early Monday, Shear described the chance to join OpenAI as “a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
“I took this job because I believe that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence. When the board shared the situation and asked me to take the role, I did not make the decision lightly,” he added.
The details of Altman’s firing remain murky. In its announcement Friday, OpenAI claimed Altman had been insufficiently “candid” with the board, and that had hindered the board’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.
That ambiguous language sent the rumor mill flying. But Brockman gave vivid first-hand details in a post on X.
He said Altman had found out he was being fired just minutes before the company made the news public. Brockman suggested Altman had been fired because of a disagreement with the company’s research division, led by another co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever.
A key factor was tension between Altman, who favored developing AI more aggressively, and members of the OpenAI board, who wanted to move more cautiously, according to CNN contributor Kara Swisher, who spoke to sources knowledgeable about the crisis.
Moving too fast?
Altman had been privately pushing the company to bring products to market more quickly and to sell them for a profit. In public, however, Altman has long cautioned about risks posed by AI.
“Is [AI] gonna be like the printing press that diffused knowledge, power, and learning widely across the landscape that empowered ordinary, everyday individuals that led to greater flourishing, that led above all to greater liberty?” he said in a May Senate subcommittee hearing pressing for regulation. “Or is it gonna be more like the atom bomb…?”
At the same time, Altman had OpenAI place its foot firmly on the gas pedal.
The startup’s executives and iPhone designer Jony Ive had reportedly held talks to raise $1 billion from Japan’s SoftBank for an AI device to replace the smartphone. And OpenAI had won a multibillion-dollar investment commitment from Microsoft as part of a partnership that included rapid deployment of ChatGPT-like technology across Microsoft’s search engine Bing and other products.
More recently, Altman announced that OpenAI would make its tools widely available so anyone could create their own version of ChatGPT.
Microsoft was not informed of Altman’s firing until “just before” the public announcement, Swisher said, and employees were not given any advance warning.
Altman exit ‘badly’ handled
In his post, Shear said Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI “remains strong.” He also said OpenAI had not dismissed Altman over “any specific disagreement on safety.”
The board’s “reasoning was completely different from that,” he wrote, without giving any further details. “I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models.”
He acknowledged that the “process and communications” around Altman’s exit had been “handled very badly” and said he planned to hire an independent investigator to look into “the entire process leading up to this point.”
Based on the results of that probe, and his discussions with other stakeholders, Shear said he would make “significant” changes to OpenAI in the coming month.
“OpenAI’s stability and success are too important to allow turmoil to disrupt them like this,” he said.