OpenAI said it’s in “intense discussions” to unify the company after another tumultuous day that saw most employees threaten to quit if Sam Altman doesn’t return as chief executive officer.
Vice President of Global Affairs Anna Makanju delivered the message in an internal memo reviewed by Bloomberg News, aiming to rally staff who’ve grown anxious after days of disarray following Altman’s ouster and the board’s surprise appointment of former Twitch chief Emmett Shear as his interim replacement.
OpenAI management is in touch with Altman, Shear and the board “but they are not prepared to give us a final response this evening,” Makanju wrote.
The drama surrounding the company behind ChatGPT has transfixed the technology world and set off a race by OpenAI investors to contain the damage. On Monday, more than 700 of the startup’s 770 staff signed a letter saying they would quit if the board doesn’t resign and re-hire Altman, who was recruited by Microsoft Corp. — OpenAI’s largest shareholder — to run a new artificial intelligence team.
The chaos engulfing the U.S. startup, which kicked off a global generative AI development frenzy, has the potential to reshape the world of artificial intelligence. The threat of a mass exodus followed a roller-coaster weekend during which OpenAI’s board defied calls from investors and top executives to reinstall Altman, who was fired following disagreements with the board on how fast to develop and monetize artificial intelligence.
The memo from Makanju doesn’t elaborate on the extent of contact with Altman, and the former CEO didn’t respond to a request for comment outside regular business hours.
There’s strong momentum outside OpenAI to get Altman reinstated too. OpenAI’s other investors, led by Thrive Capital, are actively trying to orchestrate his return, people with knowledge of the effort told Bloomberg News Monday. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Emily Chang in a Bloomberg Television interview that even he wouldn’t oppose Altman’s reinstatement. Microsoft, which has pledged to invest as much as $13 billion in OpenAI, benefits whether Altman is running OpenAI or working under its roof, Nadella said.
Until Friday, the company’s board consisted of Altman, President Greg Brockman, Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, Quora Inc. CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. After Altman’s exit, Brockman stepped down in protest.
Sutskever later said he “deeply regretted” his participation in the ouster, and added his name to the letter from employees threatening to quit.
“We are continuing to go over mutually acceptable options and are scheduled to speak again tomorrow morning when everyone’s had a little more sleep,” Makanju wrote. “These intense discussions can drag out, and I know it can feel impossible to be patient.”
She added a word of reassurance for employees: “Know that we have a plan that we are working towards.”
OpenAI, which was in talks with investors about an $86 billion valuation, now faces an end to its stunning growth. And it will face close scrutiny over its ability, or willingness, to turn cutting-edge AI into profits.
It’s not clear whether investors, OpenAI executives or even Microsoft will be able to turn back the clock. The directors who ousted Altman to begin with would have to walk back their decision.
Vinod Khosla, co-founder at Khosla Ventures, one of OpenAI’s earliest backers, said he believes D’Angelo is dug in. “If Adam does what Ilya did then, yes, it’s a smooth path,” he said in an interview. “If he doesn’t, it’s a multi-month legal battle.” D’Angelo didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
At the heart of the divide between Altman and OpenAI’s directors is whether AI should be a commercial opportunity — or is a potentially dangerous technology that needs to be checked and scrutinized at every turn.
The board clashed with Altman and Brockman, who both argued that OpenAI was growing its business out of necessity. Every time a customer asks OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot a question, it requires huge amounts of expensive computing power — so much that the company was having trouble keeping up with the explosive demand from users.
The company was forced to cap the number of times users can query its most powerful AI models daily. In fact, the situation got so dire that Altman at one point announced the company was pausing sign-ups for its paid ChatGPT Plus service indefinitely.
From Altman’s point of view, raising money and finding additional revenue sources were essential. But some members of the board, with ties to the AI-skeptical effective altruism movement, viewed this in tension with the risks posed by advanced AI. Many effective altruists — a pseudo-philosophical movement that seeks to donate money to head off existential risks — have imagined scenarios in which a powerful AI system could be used by a terrorist group to, say, create a bioweapon.