Sam Altman has been ousted as CEO of the world’s best known AI company, OpenAI. Altman has been not only the public face of OpenAI, but also the face of the “AI boom” of the past year, which was born with the launch of ChatGPT last November. Altman’s departure comes with almost nothing that can be pointed to as pretext. And because the OpenAI board of directors was very vague about their reason for firing Altman, a ton of questions remain. Here are some of the biggest ones.
What does the board mean when they say Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications” with them?
It’s hard to think of a motive for Altman to mislead the board. OpenAI is widely thought of as having the most advanced AI models in the industry, and many Fortune 500 companies are now buying access to those models through API (or through OpenAI’s backer, Microsoft). How could Altman mislead the board about the financial performance of the company when its work with large customers is so visible? (Altman was a member of the board as well.) Of course, it’s possible this isn’t a business decision at all. If he truly was sent packing because of his dishonesty, he must have told (or not told) some whoppers.
Why would OpenAI send Altman packing when he was so effective with lawmakers?
Congress has undergone a crash course this year to get up to speed on AI. Many want to get out ahead of regulating AI, after missing the boat so badly on social media. Altman went on a multiweek charm offensive in D.C. over the summer, in which he met with numerous lawmakers, and even presided over a dinner for Congresspeople to educate them about the emerging technology and its risks. Several lawmakers said Altman and his frank style were warmly received by the room.
Why fire Altman just after a very successful developer conference?
OpenAI made a series of announcements about impressive advancements in both its core models and its chatbot technologies. Analysts were enthusiastic. It lowered prices for its AI access. Developers were thrilled. The company looked strong and confident, and Altman seemed truly excited about that progress.
Why would they oust Altman now, just when OpenAI is reportedly trying to raise more money at an $80 billion valuation?
That’s three times the amount it raised a year ago, making the timing all the more curious. That $80 billion valuation may be harder to sell now.
What does this mean for Microsoft?
Microsoft owns almost half of OpenAI, and it provides all of the company’s computing power. It’s built its own products around OpenAI’s models. And it sells access to OpenAI models through its Azure Cloud. Unless Sam Altman was Microsoft’s lone champion inside OpenAI (doubtful), it may mean little for Microsoft. Microsoft’s $11 billion investment is still in place; and Microsoft, as far as we know, still has preferred access to OpenAI models. Actually, some form of dispute with Microsoft might be one believable reason for Altman’s departure. But, again, we have no evidence of that.
Could Altman’s ouster give a boost to rival AI companies?
It’s very hard to answer that question at this early stage. However, the Friday-afternoon bombshell isn’t likely to make the CIOs at OpenAI’s Fortune 500 companies feel good. “Sam’s loss is a big one for sure,” says Gartner AI analyst Arun Chandrasekaran. “As we learn more details behind this exit, it may change customer’s perception of OpenAI.”
From the outside, nothing seems to add up. That leads one to believe that there’s something big that hasn’t been made public. Altman may have transgressed in some way that has little to do with the way he ran the company. It’s wrong to speculate that it was something nefarious without any information to suggest so.
At any rate, the story just doesn’t make sense. Hopefully the rest of the facts will emerge sooner rather than later. Because OpenAI is at the center of a technological transformation with such profound cultural implications, the public has a right to know.
Naturally, I turned to ChatGPT for answers, but the bot was no help. “As of my last update in April 2023, Sam Altman was the CEO of OpenAI,” it told me. “However, it’s important to note that leadership positions can change, so it’s always a good idea to check the latest information for the most current details.”