CEO Altman Ousted By OpenAI, New Leadership Announced


“I’ve known Sam for a long time.”

That was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last June, telling me the origin story of how his company came to strike an unorthodox deal with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to become the startup’s primary partner. We were chatting for a Fast Company’s cover story on Microsoft’s enviable position in AI: It was using OpenAI’s breakthroughs as the foundation for potentially transformative new features in products such as Word, Excel, Windows, Bing, GitHub, and Azure.

It was Nadella’s existing relationship with Altman that led him to ask Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott to visit OpenAI and check out its GPT large language model, well before even industry insiders were paying close attention. Scott was dazzled by what he saw. That led to Microsoft securing preferred access to GPT as part of its investment in the fledgling AI nonprofit, a reported total of $13 billion in cash and cloud-computing credits.

After the OpenAI board’s stunning ousting of Altman on Friday, Microsoft’s tight bond with the now-former CEO is moot. At least for the moment, that is: As I was writing this piece, The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey reported that OpenAI investors are attempting to orchestrate Altman’s return, a twist that should surprise nobody.

The prospect that Altman might be gone forever remains a momentous development, given that the Microsoft executives I spoke with for our cover story often used “OpenAI” and “Sam” almost interchangeably. Scott, for example, explained that back when much of the industry still doubted that a technology such as GPT could be transformative, “Sam and I believed differently.”

For now, Microsoft is understandably accentuating the positive, at least in its public comments about its work with OpenAI under its interim CEO Mira Murati. “We have a long-term agreement with OpenAI with full access to everything we need to deliver on our innovation agenda and an exciting product roadmap and remain committed to our partnership, and to Mira and the team,” Nadella said in a statement on the Official Microsoft Blog.

Still, behind the scenes, Microsoft is surely gobsmacked by what just happened. Axios’s Ina Fried reported that it received word of Altman’s removal one minute before OpenAI issued a public announcement. According to an unnamed source cited by Semafor’s Reed Albergotti, Nadella believes the OpenAI board “has destabilized a key partner for the company,” a conclusion that’s closer to a statement of undeniable fact than mere opinion.

For those of us on the outside, Altman’s firing remains shrouded in mystery: OpenAI’s initial statement about its move was so vague it raised more questions than it answered. Even a report by The Information’s Jon Victor, Stephanie Palazzolo, and Anissa Gardizy on OpenAI’s all-hands discussion of the news barely clarified matters, though it suggested disagreements over how to balance the safety risks and economic potential of ever-smarter AI were a factor. “This was the board doing its duty to the mission of the nonprofit, which is to make sure that OpenAI builds [artificial general intelligence] that benefits all of humanity,” chief scientist Ilya Sutskever was said to have told the staff. (The company has said that it’s investing 20% of its resources in ensuring that future superintelligent AI doesn’t threaten to overwhelm the humans who invented it.)

Altman’s abrupt dismissal proves that Microsoft’s willingness to rely on an outside source for technology core to its future was always a big bet with the potential for unanticipated repercussions. In a conversation last May, Nadella was understandably upbeat about the gambit. “I felt like, ‘Hey, [OpenAI] is a great team that we can actually partner with and have a long-term, stable relationship,'” he told me. “That’s another one of those calls that, when we made it, was not at all obvious, and now it feels like, ‘Hey, this is great that it’s working.'”

If it continues to work, and Altman is indeed gone forever, it’ll be because Microsoft’s interest in leveraging AI as its next growth engine remains sufficiently compatible with the goals of OpenAI’s new management— especially interim CEO Murati. When I spoke to her in June for our Microsoft cover story, she acknowledged occasional bumps in the OpenAI-Microsoft relationship, calling them the sort of “normal friction” that’s especially likely when a small company and a huge one work together. Mostly, though, she emphasized that the tech giant had bought into OpenAI’s long-term vision for responsibly driving AI development. “It’s hard to find a partner that has the resources, the competency, and also the alignment in values and beliefs,” she said. “And we found that with Microsoft.”

That Microsoft’s public statement referenced its “long-term agreement with OpenAI” might be a subtle acknowledgment that what it gets out of the collaboration henceforth involves contractual obligations as well as the quality of the companies’ working relationship. Even if that relationship remains sturdy for the time being, it will be stress-tested in new ways as future AI advances require companies to confront new ethical conundrums. Among its many implications, Altman’s shocking ouster—less than a year after ChatGPT’s debut—shows that we can’t take anything for granted about how it will all pan out.

In one of our conversations, I asked Nadella if he was haunted by regret that Microsoft hadn’t invented something as powerful as GPT on its own. “I don’t look at it and say, ‘God, I wish I’d built OpenAI,’” he said. “I think about it like, ‘What if we had not done what we did with OpenAI?’ I would have regretted that a lot more!” He may well still feel that way. But it’s tough to imagine he isn’t looking at the deal in a new light today—and that he isn’t already girding himself for further surprises ahead.

Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, two top executives at OpenAI who left the company after a dramatic board meeting Friday, are talking again with board members about returning to the artificial intelligence startup, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

The discussions follow an outcry after Altman, 38, was ousted from his role as OpenAI’s CEO. Since then, OpenAI’s investors and Altman’s supporters have pressured the four board members of the startup to bring Altman back, six people with knowledge of the situation said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.

Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in OpenAI, was leading the pressure campaign, one of the people said. OpenAI investors who have expressed support for Altman to be reinstated were also willing to invest if he were to start a new company, something he began discussing almost immediately after he was forced out, people with knowledge of the situation said.

There is no guarantee that Altman or Brockman will be reinstated at OpenAI, the people said. Because of OpenAI’s unique structure — it is controlled by a nonprofit and its board has the power to govern the activities of the subsidiary, where its AI work is done — the company’s investors have no official say in what happens to the startup or who leads it.

OpenAI, Microsoft, and Thrive Capital declined to comment. The Verge earlier reported that OpenAI’s board was talking with Altman about potentially returning to the company.

The new discussions between Altman, Brockman, and OpenAI’s board were the latest twist in a fast-moving drama at what is perhaps the world’s highest-profile AI company.

The San Francisco startup shot to fame last year when it released the chatbot ChatGPT and showed the power of artificial intelligence. Altman, a founder of OpenAI, rapidly became the face of the AI industry as Google, Meta, and other giants raced to take the lead in the technology. But on Friday, OpenAI abruptly announced that its board had removed Altman as CEO, saying “he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” The board did not elaborate.

Altman was asked to join a video meeting with OpenAI’s board at noon Friday and was immediately fired, Brockman has said. Brockman said that even though he was chair of the company’s board, he was not part of the meeting. He later said he was quitting the company.

OpenAI had six board members before Altman was forced out and Brockman left. The other four are Ilya Sutskever, an OpenAI founder; Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora, the question-and-answer site; Helen Toner, a director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology; and Tasha McCauley, an entrepreneur and computer scientist.

Before Altman’s ouster, tensions had been rising at OpenAI as the company’s profile soared. In particular, Sutskever, a respected AI researcher, had grown increasingly worried that OpenAI’s technology could be dangerous and that Altman was not paying enough attention to that risk, three people familiar with his thinking have said. Sutskever also objected to what he saw as his diminished role inside the company.

Altman’s firing drew attention to a longtime division in the AI community between people who believe AI is the biggest business opportunity in a generation and others who worry that moving too fast could be dangerous.

His exit also caused waves across the tech industry, where Altman is well known not only from OpenAI but from his years leading Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup incubator. Many of OpenAI’s investors — which include Microsoft, Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital — did not learn about Altman’s exit until a minute before his departure was announced or after the news became public.

By Friday evening, Altman and Brockman were racing to set up a new AI company, three people familiar with the situation have said. They also considered which OpenAI employees would join them. At least three other OpenAI employees have resigned over the last two days.

Altman took a break to poke at OpenAI’s board on social media, with a joke threatening to start “going off,” or speaking candidly, about the situation.

Tech investors also rushed to show their support for Altman and hinted that they would back his next venture.

Alfred Lin, an investor at Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm that invested in OpenAI and Altman’s first startup, Loopt, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he looked forward to “the next world-changing company” that Altman and Brockman would build. Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, posted, “I can’t wait to see what he does next.”

While still leading OpenAI, Altman had pitched several ideas for new projects to investors and others in recent months. During a fundraising trip last month in the Middle East, Altman spoke about AI-related projects, including a plan to develop custom chips for AI that would compete with the chip company Nvidia.

Altman also spoke with Masayoshi Son, the CEO and billionaire founder of the tech conglomerate SoftBank, about investing in an effort to build an AI device with Jony Ive, the former chief design officer at Apple.

But by Saturday afternoon, Altman and Brockman were also talking with the OpenAI about a return.

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