Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and members of his team have joined Microsoft following his shock departure from the AI lab on Friday. The news comes after a weekend of high drama behind the scenes at the ChatGPT developer, with former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear now set to take over from Altman.
Altman, co-founder Greg Brockman, and an unspecified number of former OpenAI staff will now form a new advanced AI research division at Microsoft, CEO Satya Nadella announced on Monday.
We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners. We look forward to getting to know Emmett…— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) November 20, 2023
No further details have been released about the scope of the new team’s work. Nadella said his company remains “committed” to its partnership with OpenAI, in which it has invested billions of dollars over the past five years, but the recruitment of Altman and Brockman means the nature of the relationship between the companies is likely to change significantly.
Altman and Brockman had been locked in talks with OpenAI on Sunday evening about a potential return. But in a memo to staff, chief scientific officer Ilya Sutskever announced the appointment of Shear, who stepped down from his role at Amazon-owned gaming streaming service Twitch earlier this year.
Sam Altman’s dramatic OpenAI departure
The shock departure of Altman from OpenAI was confirmed on Friday afternoon. He was removed following 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,” an OpenAI statement said. The board, it added, “no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI”.
This led to much speculation about the reasons for his departure, with the company’s chief operating officer Brad Lightcap sending a memo to staff clarifying that there was no “malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices”. The move was the result of a “breakdown in communications between Sam Altman and the board”, Lightcap wrote.
OpenAI said it had installed chief technology officer Mira Murati as interim CEO, but rumours soon started that Altman could make a shock return, with stakeholders including Microsoft lobbying the board to change its position.
This speculation intensified on Sunday when Altman took to X to post a picture of himself at the OpenAI headquarters wearing a visitor badge.
first and last time i ever wear one of these pic.twitter.com/u3iKwyWj0a— Sam Altman (@sama) November 19, 2023
But following talks, which were reportedly mediated by Nadella, staff were told that Shear will now take over as head of the company. Murati’s position is unclear, but The Information has reported that “dozens” of the company’s staff have already announced their intention to quit in the wake of Altman’s departure, with many presumably following their old boss to Redmond.
The battle for the soul of OpenAI
The episode leaves question marks over the future direction of OpenAI, which has been at the forefront of the artificial intelligence revolution since the launch of ChatGPT almost a year ago. The success of the chatbot made Altman the face of AI, and his proclamations about the technology and his company have shaped much of the narrative around how it should be developed and regulated.
Through the partnership with Microsoft, he has been instrumental in making AI available to businesses around the world, with OpenAI’s technology embedded in Microsoft’s 365 productivity suite through a series of products called Copilots. Rivals such as Google and Salesforce are among many other vendors to have subsequently announced AI-powered tools of their own.
But behind the scenes, it seems there was tension between Altman’s drive to commercialise AI and the company’s board and its desire to develop safe artificial general intelligence (AGI), a type of AI so powerful it could remove the need for human involvement in many tasks. The company’s structure means that, while Altman headed up its for-profit activities, the board is arranged in a non-profit structure with a focus on this safe AGI mission.
At one point on Sunday it appeared that the interests of Big Tech may win out, with Altman said to be on the verge of a return, and a new-look board set to be appointed including a representative of Microsoft and Bret Taylor, the former Salesforce co-CEO. But now it seems the company has decided on a different approach, and Shears’s more sceptical approach to the potential pitfalls of AI was part of the reason he has been appointed, according to Bloomberg, which cited a source familiar with the OpenAI board’s thinking.