Artificial Intelligence

Sam Altman Fired as CEO of OpenAI - What we know so far

Published on
November 19, 2023

Okay, so we'll be updating this post as we get more info but wanted to drop what we know so far.

If you haven't heard the news yet, Sam Altman has been fired as CEO of OpenAI.

This is a fairly shocking event, especially considering OpenAI was riding high on a wave of hype about its products leading to a reported valuation of around $86b.

Altman's firing was announced on Friday by the company. This part of the post being particularly relevant:

Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.

(emphasis mine)

They also said:

As a part of this transition, Greg Brockman will be stepping down as chairman of the board and will remain in his role at the company, reporting to the CEO.

but apparently Greg should have been consulted a bit more thoroughly on that point, given he quit with this announcement shortly after:

hi everyone,
i’m super proud of what we’ve all built together since starting in my apartment 8 years ago. we’ve been through tough & great times together, accomplishing so much despite all the reasons it should have been impossible.

but based on today’s news, i quit.

genuinely wishing you all nothing but the best. i continue to believe in the mission of creating safe AGI that benefits all of humanity.

As part of the announcement the board also shared that current CTO, Mira Murati, will become interim CEO whilst they conduct "a formal search for a permanent CEO."

Company structure

The company has an odd structure detailed here.

OpenAI’s organisation structure.

Technically they're a non-profit, and technically Sam Altman holds no equity. However their structure means there is a profit making subsidiary and that Sam does own equity via a fund, rather than directly.

The board of the parent non-profit is 'majority independent' i.e. they own no equity directly. They claim this structure means "... each director must perform their fiduciary duties in furtherance of its mission—safe AGI that is broadly beneficial ..."

With all of that being said, there's very clearly an awful lot of money being made here, and companies are making profit from that. It's hard to see a world where that won't become the driving force, though despite speculation that's not necessarily a factor here.

Prior to the leadership shakeup, OpenAI's board of directors included Sam Altman, Greg Brockman, Ilya Sutskever, and three non-employees: Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, RAND scientist Tasha McCauley, and Georgetown strategist Helen Toner. Now only Sutskever, D'Angelo, McCauley, and Toner remain on the board after Altman and Brockman's removal.

Timeline of events

Brockman shared the following timeline of events on X/Twitter/Xitter:

- Last night, Sam got a text from Ilya asking to talk at noon Friday. Sam joined a Google Meet and the whole board, except Greg, was there. Ilya told Sam he was being fired and that the news was going out very soon.

- At 12:19pm, Greg got a text from Ilya asking for a quick call. At 12:23pm, Ilya sent a Google Meet link. Greg was told that he was being removed from the board (but was vital to the company and would retain his role) and that Sam had been fired. Around the same time, OpenAI published a blog post.

- As far as we know, the management team was made aware of this shortly after, other than Mira who found out the night prior.

The outpouring of support has been really nice; thank you, but please don’t spend any time being concerned. We will be fine. Greater things coming soon.

Axios is reporting that Microsoft only found out about the firing one minute before the news went live. For context, Microsoft are a major investor in OpenAI. Their current deal reportedly giving them 75% of the companies profits until they've returned their investment, at which point they'd conver to a 49% equity stake.

So, what went down?

At this point I can find precious little information on what _actually_ caused this move. It seems everyone outside of the board and Mira Murati were blindsided by this, but nobody has divulged the real reasons given to Greg and Sam - they've both stated they were shocked/saddened without explaining the actual meat of the firing. The board have simply stated Sam was 'insufficiently candid'.

We can piece together a few hints though.

The fact that this was done so suddenly, with so little succession planning in place points towards serious urgency.

There've been statements on 'misalignment' with the mission, but that doesn't pass the smell test for me. A misalignment can be handled gracefully, not in the small hours of Friday night with no stakeholder involvement and no permanent replacement lined up.

The fact that both Altman and Brockman were fired from the board points towards professional rather than personal. I've seen a bit of chatter on a personal scandal for Altman, but it's hard to see how Brockman would be caught up in the crossfire.

It could just be a straight power grab, though that's unusual when a company's star is still rising at the rate of OpenAI.

What does this mean for OpenAI and its products?

Right now the main takeaway is uncertainty, but the long term impact will be more visible as announcements are made over the coming days and weeks. The board will be forced to show their hand somewhat in terms of motivations when they select the permanent CEO. That person's connections, style of leadership, background etc will be a manifestation of what the board wished to make happen here.

It will also tell us a lot about the future of OpenAI, since whatever that motivation is, it seems to have won control of one of the most important companies in the world today.

Update 1: Three senior researchers reported to have quit

The Information are reporting that three researchers at OpenAI have chosen to depart following the firing. They are Jakub Pachocki, Director of Research; Aleksander Madry, head of a team analyzing AI risks; and Szymon Sidor, a researcher.

Jakub's contribution to the creation of GPT4 was praised by Sam Altman in a tweet back in March, saying "... we wouldn't be here without it".

Update 2: Firing not due to malfeasance, but communication breakdown

According to an internal memo from COO Brad Lightcap obtained by Axios, the decision to fire Altman "was not made in response to any malfeasance or issues with finances, safety, security or privacy practices. This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board."

Lightcap acknowledged the announcement took employees by surprise and sought to reassure staff amidst the uncertainty.

While expressing full support for interim CEO Murati, Lightcap's memo conveyed lingering concerns over how the situation was handled by the board. It stated they are working to better understand the rationale and resolve outstanding issues.

"Breakdown in communication" leading to the abrupt firing of the CEO of arguably the world’s most pivotal company still seems bit extreme.

Update 3: Sam was looking to raise billions for AI chip startup to rival Nvidia

According to sources at Bloomberg, rifts emerged between Altman and board members over his entrepreneurial efforts outside of OpenAI.

Altman was reportedly soliciting investments to launch a new AI chip startup and hardware company. He was said to be courting backing from entities like Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds and SoftBank's Masayoshi Son.

OpenAI board members allegedly took issue with Altman raising funds for new companies by leveraging OpenAI's prestige and reputation. Concerns surfaced that any spin-off ventures might not adopt the same governance standards as OpenAI itself.

Update 4: OpenAI board in talks with Sam Altman to return

In a new development, Altman is reportedly in discussions about potentially returning as CEO after his abrupt firing.

According to The Verge, the OpenAI board is already engaging with Altman on coming back just a day after ousting him. Altman is reportedly ambivalent about the prospect of returning, insisting on significant changes in the company's governance structure if he were to consider resuming his role.

This rapid reversal indicates the company may be in turmoil without his leadership. The immediate aftermath of Altman's firing saw a domino effect within the organisation's leadership.

Altman and Brockman are also believed to be in talks with friends and potential investors regarding the formation of a new business venture.


We'll keep updating this post as more information comes in, so do check back.

If you have any info you'd like to share, please get in touch with me via Twitter or Linkedin. All sources will be kept anonymous unless specifically requested.

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