The startup that has created the largest technological earthquake of the last decade is experiencing an internal earthquake that threatens to take it away. A coup against its CEO, Sam Altman, has dynamited the power structure at OpenAI and caused employees to lose trust in the board of directors. More than 550 of his 700 workers are threatening to leave if the board does not immediately resign after bringing back both him and Greg Brockman, the former president who lost office at the same time as the chief executive.
Such a move would annihilate OpenAI. The greatest asset of the technology industry and the resource that companies large and small fight over is personal talent. The overnight departure of the team that launched ChatGPT and all the technological development that supports it would be a blow that would be very difficult for the young company to overcome. Even more so knowing that its destiny would be Microsoft, OpenAI’s business partner that would have already taken the step of buying the entire startup if it were not under the strict supervision of competition regulators.
Microsoft has wasted no time in offering a blank check to Altman and Brockman. Just hours after his dismissal, the multinational confirmed his signing for a “new advanced artificial intelligence laboratory” created for him. A parallel subsidiary of OpenAI (in which Microsoft has made several investments, the last of $10 billion) but fully under its control.
“Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees in this new subsidiary if we decide to join. We will take this step imminently, unless all current board members resign,” OpenAI’s 550 employees state in the letter to management, “and Sam Altman and Greg Brockman are reinstated.”
A rare sudden dismissal and chaos
Sam Altman is currently the most popular senior executive in the technology industry, with the permission of an Elon Musk whose image has suffered the erosion of his radical measures on Twitter. His sudden dismissal from OpenAI after “losing the trust of the board” for not being “sincere in his communications” surprised not only the employees, but also the startup’s investors, who were not informed in advance that the company was planning to do without one of its main assets.
Altman’s dismissal has been the consequence of the total break between the two personalities of OpenAI: the non-profit organization focused on researching new artificial intelligence systems safely; and the entrepreneurial OpenAI, which is surfing the new technological revolution and developing new products at full speed while trying to attract investors to pay the bill until it finds a sustainable business model.
The leader of the non-profit OpenAI camp and the coup against Altman has been Ilya Sutskever, the startup’s research director. Sutskever is a co-founder of OpenAI like Altman and Brockman and all three have a seat on the board of directors. However, the Russian-born computer scientist of Canadian nationality managed to convince the other three members of the board, technologists external to OpenAI’s day-to-day operations, that the path towards profits that Altman and Brockman have taken was wrong. On Friday he managed to get them both out of the company.
But Sutskever did not count on the internal rejection that this movement was going to provoke. Pressure from employees led the board to contact Altman to rejoin the startup a few hours after firing him. Those negotiations failed and while Microsoft announced Altman’s signing, the board named the Twitch CEO as interim CEO. A very low profile compared to Altman’s, which further angered the workers who also arrived to replace interim CEO Mira Murati, an OpenAI executive in favor of the return of her former boss.
That chain of events has led to the ultimatum from employees. OpenAI has not yet commented on the matter. The best example of the chaos that is being experienced at this time in the young company is that one of the signatories of the workers’ letter is Ilya Sutskever, the author of the coup against Altman. “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. It was never my intention to harm OpenAI. I love everything we have built together and I will do everything I can to bring the company together,” the engineer has published on his social networks.