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OpenAI fires and rehires CEO Sam Altman and Greg Brockman

The story as it unfolds, check back later today!

Reviewed By: Kevin Pocock

Last Updated on December 8, 2023
OpenAI ex-CEO Sam Altman and ex-President of OpenAI Greg Brockman join Microsoft to lead advanced AI research with Satya Nadella.
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The OpenAI chief executive, Sam Altman, was ousted by the board of directors on Friday, November 17th. Co-founder Greg Brockman made the immediate decision to leave with him, followed by an outpouring of support from the 100 million-strong user base and now at least 747 of 770 OpenAI employees who pledged to join Altman in his new venture. The remaining C-Suite executives have unanimously signed a letter calling for Altman’s return, titled “To the Board of Directors at OpenAI”. Despite an offer to lead a “new advanced AI research team” with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the letter worked, with both Altman and Brockman to return to their original positions.

OpenAI fires CEO Sam Altman

On Friday, November 17th, the OpenAI board informed CEO Sam Altman that he was fired via a chat on Google Meet. The irony of this, considering lead investor Microsoft‘s competitor product Microsoft Teams, is not lost on me. To this, he tweeted a markedly calm and thankful response:

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.

Sam Altman, ex-CEO of OpenAI

Altman’s co-founder and President of OpenAI, Greg Brockman, received a text from Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever shortly afterward, dismissing him from the board of directors but not from the company. In effect, he would have less executive power than Sutskever, and in response, he announced his own resignation via X (formerly Twitter).

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 new, 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.

Greg Brockman, ex-President of OpenAI

No one but the board and Sutskever knew this was coming. Sources say that Mira Murati, OpenAI’s Chief Technology Officer was told the night before, and was seemingly not actively involved in planning the coup. Altman then learned of the leadership change 30 minutes before it became official, with Brockman informed just 5 minutes prior (despite being Chairman of the Board at the time), and then the world. The world, here, includes all OpenAI and Microsoft employees alike, even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was not best pleased.

However, as of November 22nd, Sam Altman is being reinstated as CEO of OpenAI.

OpenAI ex-CEO Sam Altman and ex-President of OpenAI Greg Brockman join Microsoft to lead advanced AI research with Satya Nadella.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (left) and former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (right) in Redmond, WA earlier this year.
Credit: Sam Altman

Who controls OpenAI, and who fired the CEO?

In the immediate aftermath of the violent dismissal, several OpenAI employees came out in support of Altman, discussing a mass departure to join Altman on whatever his inevitable new venture may be. It looked, for a minute there, like the $80 billion USD valuation of the ChatGPT empire would crumble in an instant, and Altman would emerge like a phoenix from the flames to the tune of Free Bird, narratively speaking.

The plot thickens, however. In what will inevitably become a Netflix documentary, the OpenAI Chief Scientist was the lead decision-maker in this “leadership transition”, which he himself called a “hostile takeover”. A takeover that leaves Sustkever, CTO Mira Murati, COO Brad Lightcap, and CSO Jason Kwon in charge, along with newly appointed interim CEO Emmett Shear. Also on the board of directors that ousted Altman was Adam D’Angelo, Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner. Toner had previously had her disagreements with Altman, publishing concerns over AI safety that were too critical of OpenAI for Altman’s liking. According to the departing board, Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications” – a claim that the employee letter undersigned by all C-Suite executives refutes.

The OpenAI employee letter "To the Board of Directors at OpenAI" calling to reinstate Sam Altman as CEO.
The OpenAI employee letter “To the Board of Directors at OpenAI” calls to reinstate Sam Altman as CEO.

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Will the AI startup rehire Sam Altman?

Yes! OpenAI will rehire Sam Altman as CEO.

The board was discussing the return of Sam Altman as CEO after just two days without him. Altman said he remained open to all options, which no doubt included closure on this chapter of his life and the conception of a new business in artificial intelligence. A return would of course involve concessions from the executive board, including a total replacement of the board itself. This concession has been agreed upon in principle, and the new board will be lead by the ex-CEO of Salesforce, Bret Taylor, as Chairman.

Before we learned of the final decision I made the statement that “If Sam Altman is reinstated as CEO, with all his stipulations met, we can chalk that up as a contender for the most rockstar thing to happen in the tech community this century.” Based on the uproarious support from Silicon Valley and the wider tech community, I’d say we’ve just seen that prediction come true.

Sam Altman to return as CEO of OpenAI.
Sam Altman tweets that he is “returning to OpenAI”.

Emmett Shear – interim CEO of OpenAI for 72 hours

It was initially assumed that OpenAI’s CTO Mira Murati would step into the role of interim CEO until a permanent CEO was hired by the board. However, that temporary position was instead awarded to Emmett Shear, the ex-CEO of Twitch. The former chief executive voluntarily “resigned from [his] role as CEO of Twitch due to the birth of [his] now 9-month-old son” but seems ready to return to executive leadership, having accepted the role of OpenAI’s interim CEO.

Q* and Q-Learning revealed by CTO Mira Murati in a letter to OpenAI employees

However, immediately after stepping in, Shear told the board that he would resign unless told exactly why Altman had been fired in the first place. Publicly, the board had cited a lack of “consistently candid” communication, but behind closed doors refused to reveal its reasoning to Shear. There is speculation that the lack of consistently candid communication was specifically regarding a machine learning breakthrough called Q* (Pronounced Q-Star) and Q-Learning. These are both synonymous names for the same model. OpenAI’s CTO, Mira Murati, who reportedly sent a letter to employees about this matter, declined to comment further.

Following the collective decision to rehire Altman, Shear was candid in just how brief his turn was at the helm.

Emmett Shear - CEO of OpenAI for 72 hours.
Emmett Shear tweeted with the formatting of a speed run record, in reference to his brief tenure.

Majority of OpenAI employees nearly resigned to join a new Microsoft AI division

At least 747 of 770 OpenAI employees had openly declared that they would have resigned from OpenAI, unless Sam Altman and Greg Brockman were reinstated. They would have joined a “new advanced AI research” division at Microsoft “unless all current board members [resigned], and the board [appointed] two new lead independent directors, such as Bret Taylor and Will Hurd, and [reinstated] Sam Altman and Greg Brockman”.

The undersigned includes:

  • Mira Murati, CTO
  • Brad Lightcap, COO
  • Jason Kwon, CSO
  • Wojciech Zaremba, Co-founder
  • Anna Makanju, Vice President of Global Affairs
  • Bob McGrew, Vice President of Research
  • Srinivas Narayanan, Vice President of Engineering
  • Che Chang, General Counsel
  • Lillian Weng, Head of Safety Systems
  • Mark Chen, Head of Multimodal and Frontiers Research
  • Ilya Sutskever, Co-founder and Chief Scientist

The last name on this list is a surprising one, considering his significant role in the firing of Sam Altman. Sutskever appears to publicly regret his actions up to this point, tweeting the following statement this evening:

OpenAI Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever has a change of heart, following lack of support from most remaining employees.
OpenAI Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever has a change of heart, amidst a potential mass exodus of most employees.

Sam Altman and Greg Brockman will not lead “advanced AI research” at Microsoft

While the OpenAI board was scrambling to reinstate Altman as CEO, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was in touch with other plans in mind. In a shock turn, which only unfolded as this article was being written, Altman and Brockman were offered to opportunity to lead a “new advanced AI research team”, which was soon thereafter taken to mean a new subsidiary of Microsoft.

The announcement was made by the Chairman and CEO of Microsoft who, like the OpenAI executives, remains committed to the success of OpenAI and (unlike the OpenAI executives) the use of capitalization.

We’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.

Satya Nadella, CEO and Chairman of Microsoft
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, announces Altman and Brockman to lead new advanced AI research team.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, announces Altman and Brockman to lead a new advanced AI research team.

Hey ChatGPT, cue “The Boys are Back in Town”.

FAQ – Why was Sam Altman fired from OpenAI?

There’s a lot of speculation as to why the ex-CEO was fired, and the dust has not yet settled. Details are currently changing and the reason has yet to be confirmed. However, the board of executives claims that it relates to a lack of acceptable communication between himself and the board. OpenAI’s CTO Mira Murati told employees on Wednesday, November 22nd, that “a letter about the AI breakthrough called Q* (Pronounced Q-Star) precipitated the board’s actions.”

What are Q* and Q-Learning? – The unannounced “grade-school” maths models from OpenAI

Q* is a wholly separate model from anything else OpenAI is working on. It can handle math in a different, potentially more effective, way than ChatGPT’s GPT-3.5 or GPT-4 models. While still performing on a “grade-school student” level at present, engineers are hopeful that the alternative approach will solve the current difficulties other AI models generally have with maths.

In mathematics, Q* denotes the solution to a Bellman equation. This is “a necessary condition for optimality associated with the mathematical optimization method known as dynamic programming”. In short, it is a decision-making algorithm. It allows a machine to make the best decisions at each step of a multi-stage process, where multiple variables, known unknowns, and even unknown unknowns are potentially present at each step.

FAQ – Has OpenAI discovered or created AGI?

Some speculate that Sutskever realized ahead of anyone else that the firm was on the brink of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and, for whatever reason, felt the need to stop it by any means necessary. This could be out of fear, and a humanitarian desire to save us from ourselves, knowing that the alignment problem is still unsolved and we’re simply unprepared for the implications. Alternatively, it could be born of a desire to wield power over this technology, not dissimilar to Gollum and the one ring. Before painting a picture of Sutskever one way or the other, we should clarify that intentions are not fully known at this point. This entirely speculative theory was likely theorized because the Chief Scientist of OpenAI may be the only person on earth with both high-level executive access and the scientific brain to identify the ‘moment of singularity’ as it happens.

Steve is an AI Content Writer for PC Guide, writing about all things artificial intelligence. He currently leads the AI reviews on the website.