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Sam Altman’s AI ‘mission continues’ at Microsoft, future of OpenAI and ChatGPT uncertain

Sam Altman

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After a rollercoaster ride of a weekend for OpenAI, its co-founders Sam Altman and Greg Brockman have now been snapped up by Microsoft, where they will lead a “new advanced AI research team”. 

Hours after this was announced, though, some 500 employees from OpenAI released an open letter to their board of directors, saying they may resign and join the duo at Microsoft, if the two co-founders are not reinstated. OpenAI has more than 700 employees.

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The ongoing saga all began on Friday evening when generative AI powerhouse OpenAI released a statement announcing the ousting of Altman, over what the board of directors said was lack of confidence in his ability to continue leading the company. 

“Altman’s departure follows 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,” the board said. “OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure artificial general intelligence (AGI) benefits all humanity. The board remains fully committed to serving this mission.”

It expressed gratitude for Altman’s contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI, but noted new leadership was “necessary” as the company moved forward. 

The board had appointed CTO Mira Murati as interim CEO, describing her as “exceptionally qualified” since she had led the company’s research, product, and safety functions.

As the news rippled throughout the weekend, reports suggested that Murati was looking to rehire Altman as well as Brockman, who had resigned from his positions as chairman and president following Altman’s ousting. The board also reportedly was reconsidering its decision, as it faced pressure from investors and staff demanding Altman’s return, but this appeared to have fallen through on Saturday.

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Instead, Twitch’s co-founder and former CEO, Emmett Shear was brought in as interim CEO, replacing Murati. 

Amid speculations on what might transpire next, Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella on Monday announced he had snagged Altman and Brockman, along with “colleagues”, for “a new advanced AI research team”. 

“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,” Nadella said in an X post. “We look forward to getting to know Emmett Shear and OpenAI’s new leadership team and working with them.”

The CEO added that Microsoft would move “quickly” to provide the resources its new advanced AI research team would need for its success. 

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In response to his appointment, Altman said simply: “The mission continues.”

He would lead as CEO of the new Microsoft team, according to Nadella, who added it would join others that had built “independent identities and cultures” within Microsoft, including GitHub and LinkedIn

Soon after Nadella unveiled Altman was headed for Microsoft, 505 employees at OpenAI released a letter to their board of directors saying they might be heading in the same direction if Altman and Brockman were not reinstated in the company. They also asked for all members of the board to resign and two new independent directors be appointed. 

“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI. We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgment, and care for our mission and employees,” the letter read. “Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary, should we choose to join.”

Among the list of names who signed the letter were Murati and OpenAI’s co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who reports have speculated had played a part in the decision to remove Altman. Sutskever sits on the board of directors at OpenAI. 

Sutskever, who had remained silent since the news first broke on Friday, posted on X just before the letter surfaced, saying: “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.”

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In an X post on his own appointment, Shear laid out a 30-day plan for OpenAI, which included launching an independent investigation into the “entire process leading up to this point” and producing a full report. Also on his to-do list is to “reform” the management and leadership team, amid recent departures, with the aim to drive results for customers. 

Adding that he had “checked” the rationale behind Altman’s ousting, Shear said: “The board did not remove Sam over any specific disagreement on safety. Their reasoning was completely different from that. I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models.”

During his visit to Singapore this June, Altman had said it was important for the public to learn about and experience AI even as the technology continued to evolve.” This would be more effective than building and testing a piece of technology behind closed doors and releasing it to the public on the assumption that all possible risks had been identified and plugged, he noted. “You can’t learn everything in a lab,” he said. 

In a July 2023 post, Sutskever wrote alongside machine learning researcher Jan Leike: “Superintelligence will be the most impactful technology humanity has ever invented and could help us solve many of the world’s most important problems. But the vast power of superintelligence could also be very dangerous and could lead to the disempowerment of humanity or even human extinction.”

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“Currently, we don’t have a solution for steering or controlling a potentially superintelligent AI, and preventing it from going rogue,” said Sutskever, who also sits on OpenAI’s board of directors. “Our current techniques for aligning AI, such as reinforcement learning from human feedback, rely on humans’ ability to supervise AI, but humans won’t be able to reliably supervise AI systems much smarter than us. So our current alignment techniques will not scale to superintelligence. We need new scientific and technical breakthroughs.”

In the post, Sutskever was announcing a new team of machine learning researchers and engineers to work on this problem. Their efforts would include developing a scalable training method, validating the resulting model, and stress-testing the company’s entire alignment pipeline.

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