Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (R) greets OpenAI CEO Sam Altman during the OpenAI DevDay event on November 06, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Altman delivered the keynote address at the first-ever Open AI DevDay conference. Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP
Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella moved swiftly to recruit OpenAI’s co-founder Sam Altman after his shocking ouster as CEO last week from the company that made AI a household term. Microsoft also hired Greg Brockman, who resigned as president of OpenAI in solidarity, after Altman’s ouster.
Wall Street cheered, and Microsoft shares rose on the Nasdaq stock exchange, ending more than 2 percent higher yesterday.
It may not be done and dusted yet, however. Bloomberg reported yesterday that efforts are still on to get Altman to return to OpenAI, and that he may even favour a return versus working at Microsoft.
When asked about the latest “state of play”, Nadella told Bloomberg that Altman was “in the process” of joining Microsoft. He added Microsoft remains committed to Altman
and his top colleagues “irrespective of where they are”.
Earlier yesterday, Nadella wrote in a post on X: “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.
“We look forward to getting to know Emmett Shear and OpenAI's new leadership team and working with them. And 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.”
Emmett Shear, interim CEO of OpenAI, is co-founder and former CEO of Twitch, the games streaming service that Amazon acquired in 2014.
“The mission continues,” Altman wrote, reposting Nadella’s missive on X. He added the following: “Satya and my top priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive. We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers. The OpenAI/Microsoft partnership makes this very doable.”
In a separate post, Brockman announced the leadership of the new AI department at Microsoft, which appeared to include several recent employees at OpenAI, ABC News reports. “We are going to build something new & it will be incredible,” Brockman said. Also listen: Microsoft's Satya Nadella snaps up ousted OpenAI CEO Sam Altman for new advanced AI unit
And then, a letter signed by more than 95 percent of the employees
at OpenAI called for the resignation of the company's board and Altman’s return, Wired reported yesterday.
The employees threatened to quit and join Microsoft if their demands were not met. Among the signatories to the letter are company board member Ilya Sutskever as well as CTO Mira Murati, who briefly served as interim CEO after the departure of Altman.
The letter, addressed to OpenAI’s board of directors, says: “Your conduct has made it clear you did not have the competence to oversee OpenAI,” according to ABC News which cited a copy of the letter.
“We, the undersigned, may choose to resign from OpenAI and join the newly announced Microsoft subsidiary run by Sam Altman and Greg Brockman,” the letter reads.
“Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join. We will take this step imminently, unless all current board members resign, and the board appoints two new lead independent directors,” according to ABC News.
Altman was fired after a review found he was “not consistently candid in his communications” with the board of directors, which had lost confidence in his ability to lead the company, OpenAI said in a statement on Friday, according to an Associated Press report carried by PBS
Shear said on Monday in a post on X that he would hire an independent investigator to probe Altman’s sacking and report back within 30 days, according to Associated Press.
“It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust,” Shear posted.
He wrote that the reason behind the board removing Altman was not a “specific disagreement on safety”. This could be a reference to the debates around OpenAI’s mission to safely build AI that is “generally smarter than humans,” AP reports.
With billions of dollars in investments from Microsoft and other investors, OpenAI has moved to commercialise its AI technology, chiefly through ChatGPT, which has gone viral for its ability to generate human-like essays, emails and poems and much more.
“I’ve always felt that we should think about the unintended consequences of any great advances in technology from day one versus dealing with them later,” Nadella said in his interview with Bloomberg. “So, in some sense I welcome this dialogue, if you will, of safety and safety first, even in technology and technological development.”
Microsoft is said to have invested about $13 billion in OpenAI so far, and has a 49 percent stake in the company, according to Bloomberg. Nadella expects to push for governance changes in OpenAI so that Microsoft isn’t left out of the loop in the future, he told Bloomberg.
“Surprises are bad and we just want to make sure that things are done in a way that will allow us to continue to partner well,” he said.
OpenAI’s board includes Ilya Sutskever, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology, AP notes.
Casey Newton, whose tech newsletter Platformer is widely followed, pointed out in his latest letter today that Toner has the power under the company’s charter to halt OpenAI’s efforts to build an artificial general intelligence.
As to what is being seen as something of a coup for Nadella, he didn’t really have a choice, according to one analyst. “If Microsoft lost Altman he could have gone to Amazon, Google, Apple, or a host of other tech companies craving to get the face of AI globally in their doors,” Daniel Ives, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, said in a research note, according to AP.
For example, Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce.com posted on X that “Salesforce will match any OpenAI researcher who has tendered their resignation full cash & equity” including unrealised open trade equity to immediately join his company’s AI team.