Tuesday, March 5

Microsoft hires Sam Altman hours after OpenAI rejects his return

The board of directors of OpenAI, the high-flying artificial intelligence start-up, indicated Sunday evening in a memo to employees that its former boss, Sam Altman, would not return to his position, while appointing his second replacement by interim in two days.

Hours later, in another dizzying move, Microsoft announced that it was hiring Mr. Altman and Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president and co-founder of the company who resigned in solidarity with Mr. Altman. The two men will lead an advanced research laboratory at Microsoft.

At OpenAI, Emmett Shear, the former general manager of Twitch, will replace Mira Murati as interim chief, the board said. Ms. Murati, a longtime OpenAI executive, was appointed to the position after The ouster of Mr. Altman Friday. The board said Mr. Shear has a “unique blend of skills, expertise and relationships that will move OpenAI forward,” according to the memo seen by The New York Times.

At Microsoft, Satya Nadella, the tech giant’s chief executive, said Mr. Altman would be chief executive of the new research lab, “setting a new pace for innovation,” in apparent contrast to the board’s desire for caution OpenAI administration in AI development. technology. Mr. Nadella noted in a message to X, formerly known as Twitter, that Mr. Altman’s new group will operate as an independent entity within Microsoft.

Mr. Nadella left room for other anonymous colleagues who could join the two co-founders of Microsoft. “We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources they need to succeed,” he said.

Mr. Altman responded enigmatically: write about, “the mission continues.” As of Monday morning, more than 550 of OpenAI’s 700 employees had signed a letter saying they could resign to join Mr. Altman’s new project at Microsoft unless the start-up’s board of directors resigns, they said. said three people who viewed the letter.

A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment further beyond Mr. Nadella’s posts on X. The letter was previously reported by Wired.

Mr. Altman’s firing launched OpenAI’s tech industry and investors, including Microsoft, Sequoia Capital and Thrive Capital. Microsoft, which invested more than $13 billion in OpenAI, only learned of Mr Altman’s departure a minute before his announcement, while other investors found out he had been forced out via social media . They received no further information or updates over the weekend.

“The Board of Directors firmly stands by its decision as the only path to advance and defend OpenAI’s mission,” the memo said Sunday, referring to Mr. Altman’s withdrawal from the company on Friday. It was signed by each of the four directors of the company’s board of directors; Adam D’Angelo, Helen Toner, Ilya Sutskever and Tasha McCauley.

“Simply put, Sam’s behavior and lack of transparency in his interactions with the board undermined the board’s ability to effectively oversee the company in the manner it was mandated to do,” the statement said. note.

The departure of Mr. Altman, 38, also drew attention to a divide within the AI ​​community between those who believe AI is the most important new technology since web browsers and others who fear that acting too quickly to develop it could be dangerous. Mr. Sutskever, in particular, worried that Mr. Altman was focusing too much on growing OpenAI’s business without paying enough attention to the dangers of AI.

The board’s decision to fire Mr. Altman came as a shock to industry allies and rank-and-file employees who supported the charismatic founder. Silicon Valley investors and tech executives have expressed support for Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman. On Friday evening, Mr. Altman was pitching a new AI startup to investors and planned to start the company with Mr. Brockman.

Since OpenAI launched its ChatGPT chatbot nearly a year ago, artificial intelligence has captured the public imagination, with hopes that it could be used for important work like drug research or to help teach children. But some AI scientists and policy leaders worry about its risks, such as the disappearance of automated jobs or autonomous warfare that escapes human control.

OpenAI has been the gravitational center of this discussion alongside its former CEO, who has done more than anyone over the past year to make artificial intelligence a mainstream topic.

The committee did not cite specific incidents involving Mr. Altman as the reason for its dismissal. Instead, he claimed that Mr. Altman had “lost the confidence of the board” and that his removal was “necessary to preserve the board’s ability to carry out its responsibilities and move forward the mission of this organization.

“It is essential that any CEO be honest and transparent with his or her board,” the memo said.

OpenAI and Mr. Altman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The AI ​​company has an unusual governance structure. It is controlled by the board of directors of a nonprofit organization who can decide the direction of the company, and its investors have no formal way to influence decisions.

Some OpenAI employees have pledged to leave OpenAI or join Mr. Altman’s potential new venture if the board does not relent. But even as Mr. Altman made his pitch for a new venture, investors were pushing for the return of Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman.

Throughout the weekend, Mr. Altman and his supporters lobbied OpenAI’s board with venture capitalists, other tech executives and employees. Microsoft has led the charge, three people said, and small investors have voiced their concerns through Microsoft.

That effort, sources said, was intended to show the company’s board how popular Mr. Altman was among OpenAI employees and throughout Silicon Valley.

The lack of details about the reasons for Mr. Altman’s ouster has emboldened his supporters. Some argued that OpenAI’s nonprofit board could no longer support the company that OpenAI had become – a company with 700 employees, numerous customers and corporate partnerships that is poised to generate an annual turnover of one billion dollars.

Mr. Altman, Mr. Brockman and Mr. Sutskever created OpenAI in 2015 alongside nine others, including Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla. The group founded the AI ​​lab as a nonprofit, saying that unlike Google and other tech giants, it would not be driven by commercial incentives.

In 2018, after Mr. Musk split from OpenAI, Mr. Altman transformed the lab into a for-profit company controlled by the nonprofit and its board of directors. Over the next few years, he raised the billions of dollars the company would need to develop technologies like ChatGPT.

Before joining OpenAI, Mr. Shear led Twitch as it transformed from a fledgling platform called Justin.tv into a giant acquired by Amazon in 2014. He stayed after the tech giant’s takeover and did not left earlier this year, claiming he had a child.

Mr. Shear, a longtime video gamer, was considered a capable leader on Twitch but had his critics. He was seen as being too focused on cutting costs and transforming the loss-making site into a more profitable business.

“We apologize for the abruptness of the process that we believe is required by the situation,” the board said in its memo. “Even understanding the questions this has raised, we continue to believe our actions were necessary. »

On Monday, as OpenAI employees signed the letter announcing they might leave to join Mr. Altman’s new project at Microsoft, one name stood out: Mr. Sutskever. I posted a message to X saying that he deeply regretted his role in the board’s decision.

“I never intended to harm OpenAI,” he said. “I love everything we’ve built together and will do everything I can to bring the company together.”

Kellen Browning, Karen Weiss, Erin Griffith And Tripp Mickle reports contributed.