OpenAI faced a growing revolt among employees and investors who called for the resignation of three executives after a botched boardroom coup ousted CEO Sam Altman from the world’s leading artificial intelligence company.
Employees said in a letter to the board that executives had “undermined our mission and company” by the way they fired Altman and his co-founder Greg Brockman on Friday. The number of signatures had risen to about 700 of OpenAI’s 770 employees by Monday afternoon, according to employees posting on social media X. OpenAI did not respond to confirm the number.
The turmoil at the world’s most high-profile AI start-up has marked a stunning turnaround for a group that catapulted generative AI into the mainstream with the launch of ChatGPT nearly a year ago. Until last week, OpenAI was considered the global leader in developing and commercializing the technology, which is growing for businesses worldwide. Now its very future has been called into question.
After failed talks to reinstate Altman on Sunday, in which he demanded the board’s resignation as a price for his return, OpenAI’s board turned instead to Emmett Shear, co-founder of the video streaming service Twitch, as interim CEO. Microsoft, the software company that is also OpenAI’s biggest investor, announced that it had hired Altman and Brockman to lead a new AI unit.
Altman indicated Monday that he expected OpenAI to pass and was working with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to secure the startup’s future.
Their top priority was to ensure that OpenAI continued to thrive, Altman wrote on X, adding: “we are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers [and] the openai/microsoft partnership makes this very possible”. It was “one team, one mission,” said the 38-year-old entrepreneur.
The hundreds of OpenAI employees who signed the letter said they had been offered positions in the new entity at Microsoft and “will take this step immediately unless all current board members resign and the board appoints two new lead independent directors” .
Altman and Brockman were removed by the board’s four other members on Friday. On Monday, one of these board members, Ilya Sutskever, had joined the employees.
Sutskever, also chief researcher at OpenAI, signed the letter from the staff after first takes to social media to apologize for his role in the firing of Altman.
Read the open lettersigned by hundreds of OpenAI’s 770 employees
“I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions,” he wrote on X. “I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together, and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.” “
The other remaining directors are Adam D’Angelo, the CEO of Quora; tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley; and Helen Toner of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
Some of OpenAI’s most prominent venture investors hoped Altman would return. The company’s board had made a “serious miscalculation,” early OpenAI backer Vinod Khosla wrote in a scathing editorial in The Information on Monday. Khosla later called on Shear to resign on his first day as interim CEO.
“Every problem has a solution,” Thrive Capital founder Josh Kushner wrote on X. Thrive is in line to be the lead buyer in a sale of OpenAI employee stock that was expected to close in the coming weeks. The sale, a chance for staff to cash in on OpenAI’s success by selling to investors, was expected to involve up to $1bn. of stock and give the company an $86 billion valuation, people with knowledge of the plans said.
The stock selloff was now balanced, with the weekend’s drama representing a significant change in circumstances, but could still go ahead as planned if Altman returns, a person familiar with the situation said.
The rivals, meanwhile, seek to exploit the disarray in the company. In a social media post on Monday, Marc Benioff, CEO of software company Salesforce, asked OpenAI researchers to send him their resumes and offered to match their salaries.
OpenAI’s release of its ChatGPT chatbot a year ago sparked an AI boom that has drawn billions of dollars in investment and spawned dozens of startups.
ChatGPT uses so-called generative AI to respond to text, voice or image prompts – a technological leap that many in Silicon Valley have seen as the most significant since the advent of the smartphone.
The exact reason for Altman’s dismissal remains unclear, and OpenAI’s board said only that he had not been “consistently honest”.
According to people familiar with the matter, his departure was due to concerns about his commitment to OpenAI’s mission to ensure safe and beneficial AI.
A person with direct knowledge of the board’s decision said it had become “impossible to monitor” the co-founder. “The board got to the point where they couldn’t believe what Sam was telling them,” this person added.
Shear, who has publicly called for a slower rollout of artificial intelligence, sought to play down reports that a dispute over security was part of the argument. “The board did *not* remove Sam because of any specific disagreement about safety,” He wrote on X. “I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support to commercialize our amazing models.”
Shear wrote that he would hire an independent investigator to report on “the entire process that led to this point” and could push for “significant government change if necessary”.
Nadella said his company remained committed to its partnership with OpenAI and looked forward to “getting to know and working with Emmett Shear and OpenAI’s new leadership team”.
Microsoft has committed more than $10 billion. in capital and infrastructure credits to OpenAI — though not all that capital has been drawn down — and has embedded OpenAI’s powerful generative AI tools into its own software.
Shares in Microsoft closed at record highs on Monday after rising 2.1 percent, reversing losses from late Friday following the announcement of Altman’s firing.
Altman told the Financial Times this month that he planned to raise additional investment from the Seattle group, saying he had a “good partner” in Microsoft.