In perhaps the most unexpected tech news of the year, billionaire Sam Altman has been ousted from his role as CEO of OpenAI by the company’s board following an apparent vote of no confidence. Its exact wording in a release issued this afternoon: “Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not always forthright in his communications with the board, which impedes its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”
What the hell happened to the most hyped company in the world?! Here are some pure speculation theories that have occurred to us and others around the web.
1. Did Altman avoid the board on a major deal?
Based on board language and the way tech giants work, this is the prevailing theory floating around today. “Not always straightforward” is a diplomatic way of saying that Altman is lying.
It’s possible that Altman — and potential OpenAI President Greg Brockman, who simultaneously resigned as chairman, then resigned — wanted to make a bold move that he knew the board wouldn’t like. It’s not uncommon for these deals to be quietly hammered out in smoke-filled (or vape) rooms and then presented as a FULFILLMENTbut if it’s controversial enough and the board finds out about these maneuvers, it could be fuel for an ouster.
But what kind of deal is big and dangerous enough for a summary dismissal of the CEO and famous face of the company? The guy was on stage two weeks ago, I talked to him! What has happened since then?
Few would be surprised if Microsoft, which is deeply embedded in OpenAI as an investor and customer, is a factor here. Could Altman be working for – or against – OpenAI patrons in secret? If Altman wanted to kill the golden goose by becoming independent, it could have activated the board’s fiduciary or otherwise statutory duty. On the other hand, if he negotiates another deal, such as an acquisition or a deeper and more exclusive integration, this may also cause the board to bristle, at the idea itself or at the exclusion.
But if Microsoft is as surprised as the rest of us, is in a report, it may not be the kind of high-stakes conspiracy that some seem to expect. But one has to assume that Microsoft will say that anyway. Even though they were working with Altman on some sort of secret plan, they could honestly say they were shocked by his firing. (And they “remain committed to our partnership.”)
2. Do they disagree on long-term strategy?
Despite being the hottest tech company in the world right now and everyone talking about ChatGPT, OpenAI is not exactly a good business. It’s shoveling money into the oven as fast as possible by serving, by all accounts, a very expensive product at bargain prices.
That’s all well and good for a year or two, but at some point that strategy changes from a growth hack to an accountability one. Could Altman and the board have irreconcilable differences at this point?
This seems very unlikely. The company is deliberately pursuing it publicly, confidently, and on a long-term basis. Altman and the board seem to agree, at least for now.
3. Don’t the numbers add up?
On the other hand, could OpenAI disappear? more money than Altman claimed or planned? It seems impossible, but the cost of running this operation is unprecedented.
Or what if, and again this is pure speculation, Altman secretly pursued an internal project, perhaps at great expense, against the advice of the board and without the necessary safety measures that might have been necessary. partner in that research? It sounds a little wild, but firing your CEO like this is pretty wild too.
Some kind of major mismatch in the finance department could have been the reason for the ouster, but it’s hard to imagine what Altman could have hidden from the board and CTO that was so damning.
4. Could this be a major security or privacy incident?
The idea that the company is experiencing a major, perhaps widespread, security issue is reinforced by the fact that Microsoft has reportedly suspended the use of ChatGPT within a few days. OpenAI subsequently stopped allowing new signups. If there was a serious security problem with its biggest product and Altman downplayed it, that would obviously create mistrust on the board.
There is also the potential for misuse at scale with large amounts of personal data traveling through OpenAI APIs and services.
Working against this theory is the fact that CTO Mira Murati was recently promoted to interim CEO in Altman’s place. It seems unlikely that anything security-related would go through the CEO and not the CTO, or that the two would be at odds to the point where one could be fired as such and the other replaced to clean up the mess. As the board’s statement said, Murati is in charge of product and safety, among other things. Any significant snafu in that department will reflect on him as well as Altman.
5. Maybe a difference in AI ethics or philosophy?
Altman is a proud techno-optimist, and often speaks excitedly of the possibilities of AGI, or artificial general intelligence, a theoretical software system that achieves human-like intelligence and versatility.
The board’s statement clearly includes that “OpenAI is purposefully structured to advance our mission: to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity” and that new leadership is needed. It’s possible that Sam’s zeal for AGI, even without a secret project or agreement, led to a major rift between him and the board.
It is clear to all that Altman has taken the company in a more corporate direction from its origins, changing its legal status and aggressively pursuing business and consumer applications. That doesn’t sound like the “mission” the board wants to pursue. Again, this transition didn’t happen today, and it certainly doesn’t seem like a plausible reason for the sudden firing of the CEO and a few others on a beautiful autumn Friday afternoon.
6. What about IP and legal liability?
Altman told me at the company’s Dev Day earlier this month that the company doesn’t want to have any copyright problems by using (as I asked about) data from pirated books. But a lot of research I’ve read contradicts that, as has pretty much every AI data scientist I’ve talked to. It’s hard to imagine OpenAI building a GPT-3 copyrighted database of books (as is the case) but not GPT-4 or subsequent models. (I’ll write about it next week, so thanks to the OpenAI board for eating my lunch.)
If you’re the board and facing mounting accusations that your product is built on a dataset that includes thousands or millions of copyrighted works – and your CEO is systematically downplaying the potential liability there – what how do you feel? I feel so sick.
But again, if copyright is the reason, it seems unlikely that the board will promote the CTO. Perhaps, OpenAi’s Chief Science Officer, Ilya Sutskever, knows too, and he’s still on board.
7. Did CTO Mira Murati launch a coup?
Probably not, he seems cool, and anyway what does the CTO want to be the CEO? Mira, answer my email!
8. Is this a “personal matter”?
When someone is fired hastily, there is usually some kind of unprofessional behavior in the workplace. Some CEOs get a pass on things like having children with direct reports, but not all.
Altman also has three siblings, and his younger sister Annie has publicly accused him of abuse. We have no way of evaluating these allegations, which include private matters.
What we read in the language of the Altman rejection board, however, is that it was not a legal or personal problem that prompted the action, but a professional or business one.
We may not know the whole truth on this for a long time, as the characters in the drama are likely to be NDA’ed up. Among the various whispers and leaks, an all-hands meeting about the situation this afternoon did not produce any revelations beyond assurances that the company is doing well and they will get a new CEO soon. Expect to hear more rumors before we hear the real thing.