The artificial intelligence industry was shaken by tectonic shifts over the weekend.
Sam Altman — the leader of one of the world’s most influential AI companies, OpenAI, and perhaps the most visible figure in the space — was fired Friday night by the startup’s board in a surprise move. Within about 48 hours, he’d been hired to run a new division at Microsoft where he’ll be arguably even more powerful, with the resources of one of the world’s biggest tech companies and the direct backing of its chief executive.
And as for OpenAI, the future feels deeply uncertain, with the board apparently having lost the trust of the company’s staff and employees threatening to head for the exits en masse.
The debacle unfolded just over a week after OpenAI held its first-ever developer conference, where it laid out new, commercialized versions of its technology, including the option to customize its ChatGPT AI chatbot.
If you’re just catching up, here’s what you missed from a weekend that could fundamentally change the AI development arms race:
Around 3 p.m. ET, Altman joined a Google Meet call with most of OpenAI’s board that had been convened by fellow co-founder and OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, during which Altman was fired and informed that the news would soon be made public.
Within the next half hour, the board also informed Greg Brockman, another co-founder and OpenAI president, that he would be removed from the board.
Around 3:30 p.m. ET, OpenAI publicly announced that it had fired Altman over concerns that he was not always truthful with the board. The board said Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, would become interim CEO.
OpenAI’s strategic partners, including investor Microsoft, were also reportedly informed of Altman’s ouster minutes before the board’s announcement.
Hours after the company announced Altman’s firing, he posted on X that he “loved working with such talented people” and that he “will have more to say about what’s next later.”
Brockman promptly quit. “Please don’t spend any time being concerned. We will be fine,” Brockman said in a Friday post on X. “Greater things coming soon.”
A key factor in the CEO’s firing was tension between Altman, who favored developing AI more aggressively, and members of the OpenAI board, who wanted to move more cautiously, according to CNN contributor Kara Swisher, who spoke to sources knowledgeable about the unfolding events.
In fewer than 24 hours after his firing, reports emerged that Altman and other ex-OpenAI loyalists were mulling plans for their own venture, and that OpenAI’s board was having second thoughts and considering asking the ousted CEO to return.
By Sunday afternoon, Altman was back in the building at OpenAI — this time with a guest badge — to negotiate with the board over his potential return. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reportedly mediated the discussion. A 5 p.m. PT deadline was reportedly set for the board to agree to Altman’s demands, including adding a board seat for Microsoft, and reinstating him as CEO.
But those talks apparently broke down.
In the late hours of Sunday as it turned into Monday, Nadella tweeted that Altman, along with Brockman, would join Microsoft to run a new AI research group. At OpenAI, the group found a new interim CEO: Emmett Shear, the former CEO of Amazon’s streaming service, Twitch. Murati would return to her role as OpenAI’s chief technology officer.
In a post on X early Monday, Shear, who left his role at Twitch in March, described the chance to join OpenAI as “a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. He added that the company would hire an independent investigator to report on what happened in the lead-up to Altman’s firing.
But OpenAI employees were not convinced. Hundreds of employees on Monday morning signed an open letter calling on the company’s board to resign and reinstate Altman and Brockman. They also threatened to follow the co-founders to Microsoft if their demands were not met.
Altman on Monday posted on X, saying, “we have more unity and commitment and focus than ever before. we are all going to work together some way or other, and i’m so excited. one team, one mission.”
But the drama may not be over just yet. The Verge reported Monday afternoon that Altman and Brockman could still return to OpenAI if the board members who fired him resign.
Either way, Altman appeared to try to reassure OpenAI customers that he would remain involved with the company. In a separate post on X Monday, he said that his top priority, along with Nadella, “remains to ensure openai continues to thrive.”
“We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers,” Altman said.