Why was Sam Altman fired from OpenAI?

20 Nov 2023

Sam Altman in 2022. Image: Village Global/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Altman was suddenly fired by OpenAI and has since joined Microsoft to lead a new ‘advanced AI research team’.

It appears OpenAI is suffering from its own version of ‘hallucinations’, as the company has had three CEOs in roughly three days after kicking Sam Altman out over the weekend.

The company behind ChatGPT shocked the world when it suddenly announced that Altman was no longer the CEO of the company. This was followed by a period of uncertainty, with reports (and Altman himself) hinting that he could possibly return as the head of the company.

But it appears that ship has sailed, as OpenAI has hired former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear to run the company. This was first reported by The Information, but CNBC said it was confirmed by a company source.

Why was Altman fired?

The decision to fire Altman from the company happened suddenly on 17 November, when OpenAI said its CTO Mira Murati had been appointed interim CEO.

In a statement, the company said its board conducted a “deliberative review process” and claimed Altman had not been “consistently candid in his communications”. As a result, the board claimed it no longer had confidence in Altman’s ability to lead OpenAI.

“We are grateful for Sam’s many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI,” OpenAI said. “At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward.”

Altman’s departure came only days after he announced that the company paused new ChatGPT Plus sign-ups due to a “surge in usage”. Earlier in the month, the company said it was suffering outages due to abnormal traffic that was “reflective” of a DDoS attack.

Altman has been relatively quiet about the discussions he had with OpenAI’s board surrounding his departure. On 17 November, he said he “loved” his time at OpenAI and would have more to say about what’s next in the future.

A post on X from OpenAI co-founder and president Greg Brockman suggests the decision was very sudden, with Altman being informed that he was being fired only shortly before the news went public.

Brockman was also removed from OpenAI’s board but was allowed to keep his role as president. He quit OpenAI in response to these developments.

What happened over the weekend?

The decision to fire Altman became more confusing when Altman shared an image yesterday (19 November), wearing an OpenAI guest badge with the caption “first and last time I ever wear one of these”.

This coincided with rumours that the board was considering bringing Altman back to lead the company. But those negotiations appear to have collapsed with the decision to hire Shear as the Interim CEO. It is unclear why Murati was replaced so quickly.

In a recent post, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said Altman and Brockman are joining Microsoft to lead a new “advanced AI research team”.

Microsoft is a major investor in OpenAI and has incorporated various OpenAI products into its own offerings.

“We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success,” Nadella said.

“We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite and in continuing to support our customers and partners.”

What will Altman’s departure mean for OpenAI?

The decision to fire Altman was a bold move by OpenAI’s board, as he has largely been the face of the company during its rise over the past couple of years.

Altman has been CEO since 2019 and led OpenAI through the major success of its ChatGPT launch, which was arguably the main spark that ignited the AI arms race being witnessed this year by tech giants around the world.

The departure of Altman has reportedly sent shockwaves to OpenAI, as there are rumours that its valuation in an ongoing deal has been impacted and that dozens of staff have left the company.

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Sam Altman in 2022. Image: Village Global via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic