- Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, was unexpectedly dismissed from his position leading the ChatGPT firm on Friday night following tensions with the board
- Altman, a 38-year-old recognized as an AI pioneer, was pushed out over safety concerns and a supposed lack of transparency with OpenAI’s board
- Altman, a key figure in the AI landscape, catapulted ChatGPT to global fame within a year of its launch last November
The tech world was in turmoil last night following the shock sacking of Sam Altman as boss of ChatGPT firm OpenAI.
News of his dismissal caught Silicon Valley by surprise, as the 38-year-old had been hailed as a pioneer and one of the leading figures in the high-stakes world of AI.
The firing appeared to catch Altman off guard who did not elaborate as to what may have led to his departure.
However there are believed to have been tensions between him board members over safety concerns, in particular with OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever.
Sutskever is believed to have held differences of option on the safety of AI, the speed at which the technology was developing and the commercialization of the firm, reports Bloomberg.
ChatGPT was launched less that one year ago in November 2022 – but it’s expansion occurred so rapidly, the board had concerns over whether Altman was considering the safety implications of its products, particular with regards to commercial offerings.
The board explained Altman’s exit as chief executive officer, saying he wasn’t being ‘consistently candid in his communications’ with the artificial-intelligence company’s board.
After reviewing Altman’s actions, on which it did not elaborate, the board said he was ‘hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.’
‘The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,’ it stated in a blunt assessment of the situation.
The company said its board consists of OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever and three non-employees: Quora chief executive Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Centre for Security and Emerging Technology.
In the year since Altman catapulted ChatGPT to global fame, he has become Silicon Valley’s sought-after voice on the promise and potential dangers of artificial intelligence and his sudden and mostly unexplained exit brought uncertainty to the industry’s future.
Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer will take over as interim CEO effective immediately, the company said, while it searches for a permanent replacement.
The announcement also said another OpenAI co-founder and top executive, Greg Brockman, the board’s chairman, would be stepping down from that role but remain at the company, where he serves as president.
But later on X, formerly Twitter, Brockman wrote, ‘based on today’s news, i quit.’
Altman posted Friday on X: ‘I loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people. will have more to say about what’s next later.’
‘It sounded as though there were some ethical concerns which pushed the board to do something,’ said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.
‘If he is being ousted because of ethical concerns, that is only going to be good for the company.’
Altman helped start OpenAI as a nonprofit research laboratory in 2015. But it was ChatGPT´s explosion into public consciousness that thrust Altman into the spotlight as a face of generative AI – technology that can produce novel imagery, passages of text and other media. On a world tour this year, he was mobbed by a crowd of adoring fans at an event in London.
He’s sat with multiple heads of state to discuss AI’s potential and perils. Just Thursday, he took part in a CEO summit at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco, where OpenAI is based.
He predicted AI will prove to be ‘the greatest leap forward of any of the big technological revolutions we’ve had so far.’
He also acknowledged the need for guardrails, calling attention to the existential dangers future AI could pose.
It has fueled concerns of doomsday scenarios where the software takes over the world, steals intellectual property with impunity and makes secondary education a hotbed of cheating or simply unnecessary; but speaking on Thursday, Altman said ‘heavy regulation’ wasn’t needed for some time.
‘At some point when the model can do like the equivalent output of a whole company, and then a whole country and then the whole world,’ such rules would be helpful, he said.
Some computer scientists have criticized that focus on far-off risks as distracting from the real-world limitations and harms of current AI products. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has launched an investigation into whether OpenAI violated consumer protection laws by scraping public data and publishing false information through its chatbot.
The company said its board 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.
OpenAI´s key business partner, Microsoft, which has invested billions of dollars into the startup and helped provide the computing power to run its AI systems, said that the transition won´t affect its relationship.
‘We have a long-term partnership with OpenAI and Microsoft remains committed to Mira and their team as we bring this next era of AI to our customers,’ said an emailed Microsoft statement.
While not trained as an AI engineer, Altman, now 38, has been seen as a Silicon Valley wunderkind since his early 20s. He was recruited in 2014 to take lead of the startup incubator YCombinator.
‘Sam is one of the smartest people I know, and understands startups better than perhaps anyone I know, including myself,’ read YCombinator co-founder Paul Graham´s 2014 announcement that Altman would become its president. Graham said at the time that Altman was ‘one of those rare people who manage to be both fearsomely effective and yet fundamentally benevolent.’
OpenAI started out as a nonprofit when it launched with financial backing from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and others. Its stated aims were to ‘advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.’
That changed in 2018 when it incorporated a for-profit business Open AI LP, and shifted nearly all its staff into the business, not long after releasing its first generation of the GPT large language model for mimicking human writing. Around the same time, Musk, who had co-chaired its board with Altman, resigned from the board in a move that OpenAI said would eliminate a ‘potential future conflict for Elon’ due to Tesla´s work on building self-driving systems.
While OpenAI’s board has preserved its nonprofit governance structure, the startup it oversees has increasingly sought to capitalize on its technology by tailoring its popular chatbot to business customers.
At its first developer conference last week, Altman was the main speaker showcasing a vision for a future of AI agents that could help people with a variety of tasks. Days later, he announced the company would have to pause new subscriptions to its premium version of ChatGPT because it had exceeded capacity.
Altman’s exit ‘is indeed shocking as he has been the face of’ generative AI technology, said Gartner analyst Arun Chandrasekaran.
He said OpenAI still has a ‘deep bench of technical leaders’ but its next executives will have to steer it through the challenges of scaling the business and meeting the expectations of regulators and society.
Forrester analyst Rowan Curran speculated that Altman’s departure, ‘while sudden,’ did not likely reflect deeper business problems.
‘This seems to be a case of an executive transition that was about issues with the individual in question, and not with the underlying technology or business,’ Curran said.