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Monday, December 4, 2023

Who is Emmett Shear, the new CEO of OpenAI?

Emmett Shear is a seasoned Silicon Valley founder. An early pioneer in streaming culture. A new father. And now, he’s interim CEO of perhaps the world’s most influential — and more recently, most dramatic — artificial intelligence company.

After a tumultuous weekend that began with CEO Sam Altman being ousted by OpenAI’s board of directors, former Twitch chief Shear now finds himself in charge of the company — despite having relatively little AI experience.

“I took this job because I believe that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence,” he wrote in a long post on X, formerly Twitter, early Monday morning. “When the board shared the situation and asked me to take the role, I did not make the decision lightly. Ultimately I felt that I had a duty to help if I could.”

Shear declined to speak with Post reporters about his new role.

He’s the second person to take on the mantle of interim CEO in just a few days, replacing OpenAI’s chief technology officer Mira Murati — a decision that has also stirred strife inside the company, according to a scathing letter signed by hundreds of employees. Who is he? And what does he plan to do at the helm of OpenAI?

The 40-year-old Yale graduate first made a splash in start-up circles in 2005 as co-founder of Kiko, a company developing an easy-to-use web-based calendar.

Kiko, which was backed by the influential start-up accelerator Y Combinator, didn’t last long. But Shear made a connection at Y Combinator that set him on his current path: Altman, the future OpenAI CEO, was part of his cohort. Shear eventually went through the program again with his Kiko co-founder Justin Kan, this time to build a business that would stream Justin’s life 24/7.

The site at the center of it all — Justin.tv — would eventually evolve into Twitch.tv, the popular platform that Amazon acquired in 2014. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, and the newspaper’s interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.)

Shear remained CEO of Twitch until March of this year, when he said he was stepping down to be “fully there” for his then-newborn son.

On the surface, Shear appears an unorthodox choice to lead one of the world’s most valuable start-ups.

Much of Shear’s recent career has been devoted to Twitch, and while the service hosts plenty of channels and streamers that use AI, the company notably doesn’t rely much on artificial intelligence.

One of the few exceptions: A tool called AutoMod, launched during Shear’s tenure, uses machine learning to identify and hold offensive comments in a stream’s chat so that a moderator can review them manually.

Though Shear hasn’t led an AI firm, his experience growing customer-facing platform Twitch may have been attractive to the OpenAI board in light of the company’s ambitions to sell directly to consumers.

Another factor: While Altman made waves for pushing OpenAI’s ChatGPT bot to market, Shear has expressed a desire to slow the development of AI to ensure safety. People familiar with the matter told The Washington Post that the power struggle that led to Altman’s ouster dealt in part with the tension between his push to commercialize the company’s technology and OpenAI’s commitments to safety.

However, Shear said in his post on X after his hiring that safety concerns were not the cause of Altman’s ouster.

“I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models,” he wrote.

Shear formerly served as a consultant for OpenAI competitor Anthropic, though that relationship has ended in light of his new role, an Anthropic spokeswoman said.

Where does he go from here?

Stepping into such a significant role can’t be easy, but Shear appears to have a sense of early priorities. In his announcement post on X early Monday, he outlined three areas of focus for his first 30 days on the job: He said he intends to investigate “the entire process” that brought the company to this point, open lines of communication to partners and OpenAI employees and rebuild the management and leadership teams “in light of recent departures.”

“I trust Emmett to execute this plan,” wrote Y Combinator managing director Michael Seibel on X in response to Shear’s announcement. “He is one of the smartest and most thoughtful people I’ve encountered in my entire career in tech.”

However, it’s unclear just how much of a company there will be left for Shear to lead.

At least 650 of OpenAI’s 770 employees have signed a letter lambasting the company’s board for replacing Murati as interim CEO and working “against the interests of the company,” according to OpenAI researcher Lilian Weng. And that number has continued to tick upward, sources told The Post on Monday morning.

Unless the entire board steps down and is replaced by two “independent directors” — Altman and former OpenAI co-founder and president Greg Brockman — those signers said they might “resign from OpenAI and join the newly announced Microsoft subsidiary” Altman and Brockman now lead.

On Monday, prominent venture capitalist Vinod Khosla called for Shear’s resignation on X.

“Time for @eshear to resign before he becomes the only employee of @OpenAI,” Khosla wrote. Khosla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Shear’s public statements may also prove a stumbling block. He’s expressed concern that artificial intelligence poses an extinction risk to humans — a view many AI experts call alarmist. In a June interview with podcaster Logan Bartlett, Shear said that AI could eventually reach human-level intelligence. The same month, he said on X that he’d rather Nazis take over the world than AI.

Shear has also used his X account to weigh in on controversial topics. In August he responded to a tweet about young women having so-called fantasies of nonconsensual sex. Shear shared a screenshot citing decades-old research into common sexual fantasies for women and men.

“But between 40-60% of women seem to have rape/non-consent fantasies. Why would you assume it’s not genuine sex fantasy for these girls?” Shear tweeted in response to the original post.

When reached via email, Shear declined to comment on the post but noted that the screenshot was from Wikipedia.

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