What Sam Altman’s firing at OpenAI means for its (and AI’s) future

My “AI Artifacts Podcast” co-host and I were wrapping up our news discussion for this week’s episode when we saw breaking news that OpenAI’s board had just fired Sam Altman as CEO, naming Mira Murati (its CTO and a former podcast guest of ours) as the company’s new interim CEO.

All of the news arrived as a shock inside and outside of OpenAI, with The New York Times reporting that executives were still trying to understand the board’s reasoning as of Saturday morning. Microsoft, which stuck a deal to invest as much as $10 billion in OpenAI, was also reportedly blindsided, finding out about the news only a minute before the rest of the world, according to Axios.

Despite its outsized importance to OpenAI, Microsoft never obtained a board seat there and was thus not part of the vote by the board to oust Altman. As seen in the chart from the tweet below, Microsoft has a large stake in OpenAI’s future:

As Sarah and I discussed on the podcast this week, OpenAI has evolved quickly as an organization in recent years, now subject to the same public spotlights and power moves as other large tech companies. For his part, Altman showed no signs of imminent problems over the past two weeks in the wake of OpenAI’s developer day.

Altman’s ally, Greg Brockman, who served as president and the board’s chairman, will also leave OpenAI, along with three senior researchers.

So what happens next? The Information is already reporting that Altman is planning a new venture. What form that might and who he might bring with him is unclear, though it seems there will be a handful of ex-OpenAI candidates.

In the aftermath of the news breaking, Kara Swisher reported that the move resulted from “a ‘misalignment’ of the profit versus nonprofit adherents at the company.”

Because of the unique history behind OpenAI’s founding, its directors are bound by commitments to pursue “safe” artificial general intelligence “that is broadly beneficial,” not necessarily prioritizing shareholder profit as other entities would. On the surface, it appears that such motivations or reasoning were likely involved in this leadership shakeup. Though the board’s public statement noted that Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities,” they also included the following language: “OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity. The board remains fully committed to serving this mission.”

Given OpenAI’s high profile, there is likely to be plenty of additional speculation in the coming weeks. After all, everything above seems to indicate that significant changes may be on the horizon — for OpenAI’s products, as well as the AI world more generally.

Featured image credit: Source: TechCrunch on Flickr (licensed under the terms of the CC BY 2.0)