ChatGPT-maker OpenAI fires CEO Sam Altman for lack of candor with company

Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, will take over as interim CEO effective immediately, the company said, while it searches for a permanent replacement for Sam Altman

November 18, 2023 03:10 am | Updated 09:40 am IST

Sam Altman participates in a discussion during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in San Francisco.

Sam Altman participates in a discussion during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in San Francisco. | Photo Credit: AP

ChatGPT-maker Open AI said on Friday it has pushed out its co-founder and CEO Sam Altman after a review found he was “not consistently candid in his communications” with the board of directors.

“The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” the artificial intelligence company said in a statement.

In the year since Mr. Altman catapulted ChatGPT to global fame, he has become Silicon Valley’s sought-after voice on the promise and potential dangers of artificial intelligence and his sudden and mostly unexplained exit brought uncertainty to the industry’s future.

Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, will take over as interim CEO effective immediately, the company said, while it searches for a permanent replacement.

The announcement also said another OpenAI co-founder and top executive, Greg Brockman, the board’s chairman, would be stepping down from that role but remain at the company, where he serves as president. But later on X, formerly Twitter, Mr. Brockman wrote, “based on today’s news, i quit.”

OpenAI declined to answer questions on what Mr. Altman’s alleged lack of candor was about. The statement said his behavior was hindering the board’s ability to exercise its responsibilities.

Mr. Altman posted Friday on X: “i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people. will have more to say about what’s next later.”

The Associated Press and OpenAI have a licensing and technology agreement that allows OpenAI access to part of AP’s text archives.

Mr. Altman helped start OpenAI as a nonprofit research laboratory in 2015. But it was ChatGPT’s explosion into public consciousness that thrust Altman into the spotlight as a face of generative AI — technology that can produce novel imagery, passages of text and other media. On a world tour this year, he was mobbed by a crowd of adoring fans at an event in London.

He’s sat with multiple heads of state to discuss AI’s potential and perils. Just Thursday, he took part in a CEO summit at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco, where OpenAI is based.

He predicted AI will prove to be “the greatest leap forward of any of the big technological revolutions we’ve had so far.” He also acknowledged the need for guardrails, calling attention to the existential dangers future AI could pose.

Some computer scientists have criticized that focus on far-off risks as distracting from the real-world limitations and harms of current AI products. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has launched an investigation into whether OpenAI violated consumer protection laws by scraping public data and publishing false information through its chatbot.

The company said its board consists of OpenAI’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, and three non-employees: Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

OpenAI’s key business partner, Microsoft, which has invested billions of dollars into the startup and helped provide the computing power to run its AI systems, said that the transition won’t affect its relationship.

“We have a long-term partnership with OpenAI and Microsoft remains committed to Mira and their team as we bring this next era of AI to our customers,” said an emailed Microsoft statement.

While not trained as an AI engineer, Altman, now 38, has been seen as a Silicon Valley wunderkind since his early 20s. He was recruited in 2014 to take lead of the startup incubator YCombinator.

“Sam is one of the smartest people I know, and understands startups better than perhaps anyone I know, including myself,” read YCombinator co-founder Paul Graham’s 2014 announcement that Altman would become its president. Graham said at the time that Altman was “one of those rare people who manage to be both fearsomely effective and yet fundamentally benevolent.”

OpenAI started out as a nonprofit when it launched with financial backing from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and others. Its stated aims were to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.”

That changed in 2018 when it incorporated a for-profit business Open AI LP, and shifted nearly all its staff into the business, not long after releasing its first generation of the GPT large language model for mimicking human writing. Around the same time, Mr. Musk, who had co-chaired its board with Mr. Altman, resigned from the board in a move that OpenAI said would eliminate a “potential future conflict for Elon” due to Tesla’s work on building self-driving systems.

While OpenAI’s board has preserved its nonprofit governance structure, the startup it oversees has increasingly sought to capitalize on its technology by tailoring its popular chatbot to business customers.

At its first developer conference last week, Mr. Altman was the main speaker showcasing a vision for a future of AI agents that could help people with a variety of tasks. Days later, he announced the company would have to pause new subscriptions to its premium version of ChatGPT because it had exceeded capacity.

Mr. Altman’s exit “is indeed shocking as he has been the face of” generative AI technology, said Gartner analyst Arun Chandrasekaran.

He said OpenAI still has a “deep bench of technical leaders” but its next executives will have to steer it through the challenges of scaling the business and meeting the expectations of regulators and society.

Forrester analyst Rowan Curran speculated that Altman’s departure, “while sudden,” did not likely reflect deeper business problems.

“This seems to be a case of an executive transition that was about issues with the individual in question, and not with the underlying technology or business,” Mr. Curran said.

Mr. Altman has a number of possible next steps. Even while running OpenAI, he placed large bets on several other ambitious projects.

Among them are Helion Energy, for developing fusion reactors that could produce prodigious amounts of energy from the hydrogen in seawater, and Retro Biosciences, which aims to add 10 years to the human lifespan using biotechnology. Altman also co-founded Worldcoin, a biometric and cryptocurrency project that’s been scanning people’s eyeballs with the goal of creating a vast digital identity and financial network.

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