Monday, March 4, 2024

OpenAI is one of the world’s highest-profile artificial intelligence companies. So the abrupt ouster of Sam Altman as its chief executive on Friday caused an immediate stir in the world of A.I. and among the investors who back it.

Now, two days later, in the latest twist, Mr. Altman was said to be in talks about a return to the company.

Under Mr. Altman’s leadership, OpenAI has become synonymous with artificial intelligence. The company helped set off a frenzy in the tech world after it released ChatGPT last year, with industry giants like Apple, Google and Meta hurriedly beginning to develop their own artificial intelligence technology.

Here’s what you need to know about Mr. Altman’s departure, and what could happen next.

What happened?

On Friday, Mr. Altman was abruptly dismissed as OpenAI’s chief executive. The move was so surprising — and significant — that some tech observers were openly comparing it to when Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985.

Details for his surprise departure are still emerging but a dispute with a fellow founder of OpenAI appears to have played a role. Ilya Sutskever, a board member who founded OpenAI with Mr. Altman and several other people, was said to be growing increasingly alarmed that the company’s technology could pose a significant risk, and that Mr. Altman was not paying close enough attention to the potential harms. Mr. Sutskever also objected to what he perceived as his own diminished role inside the company.

“It doesn’t seem at all implausible that we will have computers — data centers — that are much smarter than people,” Mr. Sutskever said recently on a podcast. “What would such A.I.s do? I don’t know.”

Two other OpenAI board members, Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, have ties to the Rationalist and Effective Altruist movements, who have been concerned that A.I. technology could one day grow to destroy humanity.

The board, however, has been tight-lipped about the reasons for his departure. In the announcement on Friday, the board said little more than that Mr. Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” On Saturday, Brad Lightcap, an OpenAI executive, told employees that “the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety or security/privacy practices. This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.”

What was the reaction?

It was shock and confusion among rank-and-file employees at OpenAI, and distress among the company’s investors.

By Saturday, Mr. Altman, as well as Greg Brockman, a former OpenAI president who quit in protest on Friday, were in negotiations to return to the company. Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in the company, was said to be particularly alarmed by Mr. Altman’s sudden dismissal, and to be leading the campaign to have him reinstated.

Microsoft, as well as other OpenAI investors like Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital, found out about Mr. Altman’s firing either a minute before the announcement, or after it went public.

What happens if the board does not reinstate Mr. Altman?

Mr. Altman, along with Mr. Brockman, would almost certainly build a new company.

Immediately after Mr. Altman was pushed out, he was said to have entered discussions with investors about a new artificial intelligence start-up. Mr. Altman is well known within the tech world not only from OpenAI work but also from his years leading Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley start-up incubator.

Alfred Lin, an investor at Sequoia Capital, posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that he looked forward to “the next world-changing company” that Mr. Altman and Mr. Brockman would build. Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive, posted, “I can’t wait to see what he does next.”

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