Sam Altman’s ousting from OpenAI: What marketers need to know
It's been a chaotic and shocking few days at the pioneering AI company. Here's an overview of the situation as it currently stands.
Founded as a nonprofit in 2015, Open AI switched to a "capped-profit" model in 2019. / Adobe Stock
Silicon Valley has been reeling since Friday afternoon, when OpenAI announced in a blog post that Sam Altman – its charismatic CEO who cofounded the company in 2015 – had been fired by its board of directors.
Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities,” OpenAI wrote in a blog post. “The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”
The lack of clarity surrounding the reasons behind Altman’s sudden ousting has sparked broad speculation within the tech world. The theory that appears to have garnered the most traction thus far is that Altman has been at the heart of an ideological rift within the company.
On one side – so this partiuclar theory goes – is a contingent of business-driven executives, with Altman as their leader, who were pushing for the company’s rapid commercial growth. On the other side was a faction of employees who are primarily concerned with curbing the risks presented by AI and ensuring that the company’s technology prioritizes the interests of humanity over its stakeholders; Ilya Sutskever, another OpenAI cofounder and the company’s chief scientist, is portrayed as the main advocate for this latter group.
OpenAI was catapulted into global prominence almost one year ago when it released ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot that attracted its first million users in a period of just five days. Microsoft has been the company’s major financial backer, investing $13bn since 2019. Altman has become a superstar within the tech industry and is widely regarded as one of the leading figures in what's often described as the AI revolution – the surge in financial and public interest that's been sparked largely by the release of ChatGPT.
Greg Brockman, another OpenAI cofounder, quit from his post as president on Friday following the news that Altman had been fired. (The board also ousted him as chairman on the same day that Altmas was fired.)
At around 3am ET this morning, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote in a post on X that the tech company had hired both Altman and Brockman “to lead a new advanced AI research team.”
And in a stunning display of solidarity with Altman, around 600 of OpenAI’s 700 employees have signed a letter threatening to quit and join Altman’s new project at Microsoft if the company’s board does not resign and reappoint the fired CEO to his original role, according to Wired.
In another surprise move, the letter was eventually signed by Sutskever, who played a key role in Altman's firing. “I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions,” Sutskever wrote in a post on X this morning. “I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we've built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.“ At the time of this writing, only three OpenAI board members stand in opposition to Altman returning to the company as CEO.
"This is looking like it could be one of the biggest missteps by a company’s board in recent memory," says James Young, head of digital production, BBDO North America, who emphasizes that the situation is still developing and that there are many questions yet to be answered.
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The news of Altman and Brockman's latest venture at Microsoft prompts “questions about the ongoing relationship between [OpenAI and Microsoft] both organizationally and technologically – especially around whether OpenAI will continue to get the promised investment from Microsoft, how the two companies will treat talent migration from OpenAI to Microsoft and what the ownership of the core models and technology will be in the future,” Forrester senior analyst Rowan Curran said in a statement.
Curran added that “the situation is currently too dynamic” to be able to determine how the broader AI industry will be impacted.
OpenAI is no stranger to controversy and conflict. Founded as a nonprofit in 2015 by Altman, Sutskever, Brockman Elon Musk and others with the express mission of creating safe artificial general intelligence (AGI) that maximizes human flourishing, the company switched to a “capped-profit” model in 2019. The move caused a falling out between Musk and his cofounders. Musk left the company and has since been vocally critical of its new business model; earlier this year, he launched his own AI venture to compete with OpenAI and ChatGPT. And in 2020, a group of former OpenAI employees left to found AI startup Anthropic, citing concerns over the speed with which their former employer was launching new products.
While Altman’s ousting from OpenAI has been the subject of an enormous amount of press coverage over the past few days, not everyone believes the company to be worthy of so much attention. “OpenAI in many ways is leading the charge for investment, PR and performance [within the AI industry], but I’ve not seen much evidence to suggest the company deserves to be the entire focus of a broad and powerful movement,” says Tom Goodwin, author of Digital Darwinism: Surviving the New Age of Business Disruption.
Are there any immediate implications that the drama within OpenAI presents to marketers? "In general, I think this is important reminder that we’re in the middle of a significant transition in our industry and that that transition is ongoing," says BBDO's Young. "This space is going to continue to grow, change and evolve in so many ways and it’s important for us to keep that in mind and move along with it. Be water, you know?"
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