In a dramatic turn of events, the future of OpenAI, one of Silicon Valley’s most renowned artificial intelligence (AI) startups, remains shrouded in uncertainty. Extraordinary efforts by employees and investors to oust the board have so far failed to persuade its directors to resign and reinstate co-founder Sam Altman.
As of Monday evening, 747 out of 770 OpenAI employees had signed a letter threatening to quit and join Microsoft if the board refused to resign and reverse their decision to sack Altman. Venture capitalists backing the generative AI startup were also exploring legal measures to force the board to reconsider its actions.
One source from a venture fund with a stake in OpenAI hinted at the possibility of legal action “as soon as tomorrow.” However, as of now, the board appears resolute and prepared to test the employees’ willingness to quit.
In the strongly-worded letter, staff accused the directors of undermining the company’s mission by firing Altman and stripping his co-founder Greg Brockman of his board position, which subsequently led to Brockman’s resignation. Ilya Sutskever, the last remaining co-founder on the board and OpenAI’s chief scientist, signed the letter from staff after publicly apologizing for his role in Altman’s removal. However, it remains uncertain whether he will leave the board as well, given the mounting pressure from staff to reverse Altman’s ousting.
The removal of Altman has thrown OpenAI, a leader in the AI field, into a historic crisis. The company has been a driving force in the AI industry, contributing to significant technological breakthroughs, akin to the impact of smartphones.
The uncertainty surrounding OpenAI’s future has created opportunities for rival AI companies. Anthropic and Cohere, among others, have witnessed increased interest from OpenAI customers. Rival companies are also actively recruiting OpenAI staff, hoping to poach talented researchers.
In a surprising move, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, publicly called on OpenAI researchers to send him their CVs and offered to match their salaries. Mustafa Suleyman, founder of AI startup Inflection, expressed sadness over the events at OpenAI but extended an invitation to OpenAI employees to join his company.
In their letter, OpenAI staff threatened to leave the company “imminently” if the board did not reverse Altman’s firing. Microsoft, recognizing the talent at stake, committed to hiring Altman, Brockman, and other OpenAI staff to work at a new AI research subsidiary.
Aside from Sutskever, OpenAI’s board consists of Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora; technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley; and Helen Toner from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.
The board appointed Emmett Shear, co-founder of Twitch, as interim CEO following Altman’s removal, replacing Mira Murati, who had been promoted to the role just days prior. Early OpenAI investor Vinod Khosla called on Shear to step down.
In interviews on Monday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated that he could not confirm who would be CEO on Tuesday but pledged continued support for Altman, whether he returned to OpenAI or worked within Microsoft. Microsoft has been a significant backer of OpenAI, providing hardware support and investments.
Nadella mentioned that Altman would have the opportunity to pursue his side projects while at Microsoft, which include a nuclear fission venture, a cryptocurrency project, and potential ventures in device manufacturing and chip development.
Ibrahim Ajami, head of ventures at Mubadala Capital, emphasized the challenges of investing in companies like OpenAI, stating that it’s difficult to underwrite such companies in the current environment. He highlighted the importance of assessing companies based on customers, partnerships, talent, and long-term viability, raising questions about OpenAI’s current standing in these aspects.