SAN FRANCISCO: Silicon Valley’s buzziest startup, OpenAI, finds itself in a crisis after ousting CEO Sam Altman. Its initial communications did it no favors.
OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, issued a statement about removing Altman on Friday, blindsiding employees — as well as Microsoft, which has invested billions of dollars in the company. Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
“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 company said. “The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”
The statement, which named chief technology officer Mira Murati as interim CEO, sparked a tumultuous weekend for OpenAI. Hours later, the company’s cofounder and former board chair Greg Brockman posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was quitting.
On Saturday, OpenAI COO Brad Lightcap addressed Altman’s firing in a brief message to employees, where he explained that there was a “breakdown in communication” between the executive and the board.
“We can say definitively that the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety or security or privacy practices,” Lightcap wrote.
Lightcap’s comments may have thrown cold water on feverish speculation about Altman’s ouster, but they also put OpenAI’s statement more under the spotlight, as Activision Blizzard EVP and CCO Lulu Cheng Meservey said via X.
“It’s risky to drop sinister-sounding innuendo like ‘not consistently candid’ if you can’t back it up with evidence of something really bad, because you’ll have to answer for it and will lose trust when people think you exaggerated,” she said.
Some OpenAI employees are making Meservey’s point. One of the startup’s research scientists on Monday took aim at OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who led the board rebellion against Altman, in a now-deleted post on X.
“[Sutskever] had 60 hours now to name evidence of safety concerns or wrongdoing to justify burning an entire company to the ground. But he could name nothing, zero, naught,” the staffer said.
OpenAI’s statement reportedly presented some legal concerns, too.
Over the weekend, OpenAI’s board held negotiations about bringing Altman back. Altman, who was open to returning, wanted a statement absolving him of wrongdoing, but doing so may have opened the board up to legal liability, according to Bloomberg.
The board ultimately didn’t allow Altman to return, instead appointing Twitch cofounder Emmett Shear as interim CEO, marking its third chief executive in as many days. On Monday, Microsoft said it had hired Altman and Brockman to lead a new advanced AI research team.
But the drama isn’t over. More than 700 OpenAI employees have since signed an open letter threatening to leave and join Microsoft unless the board resigns and reinstates Altman as CEO, along with Brockman.
The staffers, including Lightcap, Sutskever and Murati, said the board has jeopardized their work and “undermined our mission and company.” They also accused the board of failing to present written evidence for its allegations, despite “many requests for specific facts.”
“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI. We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgment and care for our mission and employees,” the letter reads.
Several employees are signaling their willingness to leave by posting, “OpenAI is nothing without its people.”
Altman, whose move to Microsoft reportedly isn’t a done deal, is open to returning to OpenAI if the remaining board members who fired him step aside, multiple sources told The Verge.
OpenAI could not be immediately reached for comment.