Less than a day after Sam Altman was unceremoniously deposed from his position as CEO of leading artificial intelligence giant OpenAI, multiple reports have surfaced suggesting that the company—or at least its major investors, which include Microsoft—is negotiating to bring him back.
The coup on the six-member board of directors, which included Altman and company co-founder and board chairman Greg Brockman, was led by chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, according to reporting by The Verge and The New York Times. It was executed around noon on Friday without Brockman’s participation and without any advance discussions with Altman or the company’s major investors.
Those investors—and Microsoft in particular, which has poured an estimated $13 billion into the former non-profit—were blindsided. And while the Redmond-based tech behemoth issued a public statement declaring the “utmost confidence” in a post-Altman OpenAI, multiple news outlets are reporting that Microsoft was betting on Altman’s leadership, and is a central player in a behind-the-scenes move to bring him back to lead the company.
OpenAI nor Microsoft have not confirmed any of these reports. Other OpenAI investors are also pushing for Altman’s return, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Could Altman stage a comeback?
The chaos is rooted not only on what Altman was doing for the company—most recently illustrated by a jam-packed DevDay keynote just a week ago—but in the possibility that he might start something new and compete directly with his former employer, according to Reuters.
Altman abrupt dismissal triggered a series of significant departures from the company, starting with Brockman.
“I’m super proud of what we’ve all built together since starting in my apartment 8 years ago,” Brockman wrote on Twitter, quoting Altman’s earlier farewell message. “We’ve been through tough & great times together, accomplishing so much despite all the reasons it should have been impossible.
“But based on today’s news, I quit,” he said.
Many other OpenAI employees followed Altman and Brockman out the door, including three key AI researchers, The Information reported.
By Saturday, a significant cohort of OpenAI staffers collectively threatened to leave the company if Altman was not brought back, according to The Verge, which late Saturday updated its report to say that negotiations missed a 5 p.m. PT deadline set by those employees. “If Altman decides to leave and start a new company, those staffers would assuredly go with him,” the update read.
Did OpenAI achieve AGI?
As for why Sutskever and three other board members voted for Altman’s ouster, The Verge claims it was the result of “a power struggle between the research and product sides of the company.”
In fact, many AI watchers have raised the possibility that the OpenAI research team hit a major milestone a few weeks ago, forcing a showdown between OpenAI’s nonprofit, humanist origins and its massively successful for-profit corporate future.
My prediction is that a few weeks ago the team at OpenAI demoed either a machine that showed consciousness or AGI and Sam didn’t immediately tell the board and their feelings were hurt. pic.twitter.com/IUDcHiIwIU
— Dan Siroker (@dsiroker) November 18, 2023
“Unlike traditional companies, the board isn’t tasked with maximizing shareholder value, and none of them hold equity in OpenAI,” explained The Verge. “Instead, their stated mission is to ensure the creation of ‘broadly beneficial’ artificial general intelligence, or AGI.”
Given the nearly universal concerns that AI could advance well beyond the ability of humans to control it—a threshold known as The Singularity—a major breakthrough in AI would likely create a split between people who want to slow things down and others who want to press ahead even faster. Industry watchers have labeled the former “decels.”
“It would have to be something Sam [Altman], Greg [Brockman], and the board would agree should stay confidential in the best interest of OpenAI and the world,” theorized RewindAI CEO and cofounder Dan Siroker. “Also, firing only makes sense if his actions could be perceived by the board to jeopardize ‘safe AGI that is broadly beneficial.’”
Prominent tech journalist Kara Swisher, who has been posting updates on the story on Twitter, speculates that Altman will demand a change to OpenAI’s governance as a condition of his return.
“My assumption is [Altman] will return only if—and that’s a big if—governance is changed, and that means Microsoft and some other big names on the board and not those [effective altruists] who think the plot of Terminator is a thing.”
Busy tonight partying hard with a 2 year old, so I’ll just drop this. My assumption is @sama will return only if — and that’s a big if — governance is changed and that means MSFT and some other big names on the board and not those EAs who think the plot of Terminator is a thing. pic.twitter.com/Czx7ukCEyw
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) November 19, 2023
Many have compared the corporate drama to the firing of Steve Jobs by Apple’s board of directors in 1995. The technology visionary was eventually brought back to lead the Cupertino-based company to become the most valuable company in the world. His hiring and firing happened on the same day, eleven years apart.
In Altman’s case, however, his return may come much faster.
This is a developing story and will be updated as information becomes available.