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Friday, July 19, 2024

As OpenAI chaos mounts, talks to bring back Sam Altman continue

Talks were ongoing Tuesday about the future of OpenAI and the potential return of Sam Altman, the ousted CEO, people familiar with the discussions said, a day after nearly all of the artificial intelligence company’s employees threatened to quit.

Investors and executives were scrambling to figure out a plan to bring back Altman after it was revealed late Sunday night that he would be leading Microsoft’s new AI lab. Conflicting information was emerging from the negotiations. One person familiar with the situation said the talks were less about specific board members and more about creating a board that was “stable and well-intentioned.” Another person familiar with the matter said Altman would return only if the board members who fired him left.

Altman’s sudden move to join Microsoft is not finalized, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, signaled in an interview with CNBC on Monday. In the CNBC interview, Nadella sought to assure customers and investors that his company was on solid ground no matter the outcome. He left the door open for Altman to return to OpenAI or continue on as an AI leader at Microsoft, even though he announced late Sunday night that Altman was coming to Microsoft. “I’m open to both options,” Nadella said in the interview.

Altman, too, has signaled he could still return. “We are all going to work together some way or other,” he said in a post Monday morning on X, formerly Twitter. He added that the “top priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive. We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers.”

That leaves the fate of Altman and OpenAI unclear, more than three full days after the board fired him.

The latest developments come amid a dizzying several days for OpenAI that has put the future of the firm in doubt, a drastic change of fate for a company that until just days ago was considered one of the most promising start-ups in Silicon Valley, with a valuation close to $90 billion.

On Friday, its board abruptly removed Altman from his role as chief executive, saying he had been “not consistently candid” in his communications. That sparked a two-day period during which Altman visited company headquarters to negotiate his potential return, only to see those negotiations collapse Sunday night into early Monday, when Microsoft announced Altman was joining the company, along with Greg Brockman, the former OpenAI president who had quit in solidarity with Altman.

Late Sunday, OpenAI’s board said it would stand by its ouster of Altman and appointed Emmett Shear as interim CEO. Shear is the co-founder of Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform. On Tuesday, Bloomberg News reported that Shear was telling associates that he, too, would quit if the board did not provide more specific reasons for firing Altman.

As of Monday, nearly all employees signed a letter threatening to quit unless the current board resigned and reappointed Altman. In a bizarre twist, the letter included among the signatories Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and a key member of the company’s four-person board, who voted to oust Altman on Friday.

“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI,” the employees wrote in the letter. “We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgment and care for our mission and employees.”

On Tuesday morning, Kevin Scott, the chief technology officer at Microsoft, indicated on X that the situation is still in flux, noting that if OpenAI employees end up departing the company, they would have a job at Microsoft that matches their compensation.

At OpenAI’s San Francisco office, employees who had threatened to quit Monday waited for news of a change in the situation. The company has reassured its customers, which include thousands of start-ups and bigger companies, that it’s business as usual.

Employees are still working together closely and supporting each other, one worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters said.

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