ChatGPT developer OpenAI fires Sam Altman as CEO: Here is why

At a time when the AI chatbot ChatGPT reached 100 million weekly active users, the company's board said that it no longer has confidence in Sam Altman’s ability to continue leading OpenAI.
ChatGPT developer OpenAI fires Sam Altman as CEO: Here is why
WikimediaCommons | TechCrunch/STEVE JENNINGS
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In a sudden development that has sent ripples across the tech industry, Sam Altman was fired as CEO of OpenAI, on Saturday, November 18. The Chief technology officer Mira Murati has been appointed as interim CEO. OpenAI is the developer of Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT, which is leading the massive AI momentum globally. At a time when the AI chatbot ChatGPT reached 100 million weekly active users, the company's board said that it "no longer has confidence in his [Sam Altman] ability to continue leading OpenAI." Soon after Altman was fired, OpenAI President and co-founder Greg Brockman also stepped down as chairman of the board but remains at the company.

According to media reports, Altman may have tried to circumvent the board in a major deal. “It’s possible that Altman — and potentially OpenAI President Greg Brockman, who stepped down as chairman simultaneously, then resigned — wanted to make a bold move that he knew the board would not like,” according to a TechCrunch report. According to tech news website Semafor, Altman has been in the process of raising a venture capital fund to focus on "hard tech". If he was negotiating some deal, like an acquisition or more exclusive integration, it could also have caused the board to bristle, either at the idea itself or at being excluded, the report mentioned.

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OpenAI is also not doing well financially, and is burning a lot of cash. Reports surfaced earlier this year that the ChatGPT maker is likely to go bankrupt by the end of 2024 if it doesn't get more funding soon. ChatGPT reportedly costs a whopping $700,000 (Rs 5.80 crore) per day to operate. Even Altman had admitted in a tweet that "compute costs are eye-watering".

According to reports, Altman has been secretly pursuing an internal project, perhaps at significant cost, against the advice of the board. “Some kind of major mismatch in the financial department could be cause for dismissal, but it’s hard to imagine what Altman could have kept from the board and CTO that would be so damning,” according to TechCrunch. There’s also the possibility that Altman was making personal investments in a way that the board disagreed with. It’s also possible that Sam’s zeal for generative AI “led to a major rift between him and the board”.

The unexpected and unceremonious ouster of Sam Altman from OpenAI has left many unanswered questions as to why the company had to get rid of the most influential AI figure at a crucial juncture? Here is all that we know.

OpenAI’s announcement

At around 2am on Saturday, OpenAI announced its leadership transition. In the announcement, it said that Sam Altman departed from the company and the Chief technology officer Mira Murati has been appointed as interim CEO. “Search process underway to identify permanent successor,” the company said.

According to OpenAI, the billionaire and AI evangelist’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 board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” the company said.

The board of directors also said, “We are grateful for Sam’s many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI. At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward. As the leader of the company’s research, product, and safety functions, Mira is exceptionally qualified to step into the role of interim CEO. We have the utmost confidence in her ability to lead OpenAI during this transition period.”

Who is Mira Murati

Mira Murati was serving as the Chief technology officer. Born in Albania and raised in Canada, she had experience in working in several fields, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Murati worked in Tesla of Elon Musk, where she played a key role in developing Model X, a hybrid electric car. She joined OpenAI in 2018, where she was responsible for distribution of ChatGPT last year.

“A member of OpenAI’s leadership team for five years, Mira has played a critical role in OpenAI’s evolution into a global AI leader. She brings a unique skill set, understanding of the company’s values, operations, and business, and already leads the company’s research, product, and safety functions. Given her long tenure and close engagement with all aspects of the company, including her experience in AI governance and policy, the board believes she is uniquely qualified for the role and anticipates a seamless transition while it conducts a formal search for a permanent CEO,” the company said in its statement.

Sam Altman’s statement

"I loved my time at OpenAI. It was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. Most of all I loved working with such talented people. Will have more to say about what's next later," Altman posted on X, at around 3am.

By 10 am, he posted, “I love you all. Today was a weird experience in many ways. But one unexpected one is that it has been sorta like reading your own eulogy while you’re still alive. The outpouring of love is awesome. One takeaway: go tell your friends how great you think they are.”

Meanwhile, Brockman posted on X his message to the OpenAI team. “Hi everyone, I'm super proud of what we've all built together since starting in my apartment 8 years ago. We've been through tough & great times together, accomplishing so much despite all the reasons it should have been impossible. But based on today's news, I quit. Genuinely wishing you all nothing but the best. I continue to believe in the mission of creating safe AGI that benefits all of humanity.”

He also said that he got a call from OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever at around 12 pm on Saturday, where he was told that he was removed from the Board. “At 12:19pm, Greg got a text from Ilya asking for a quick call. At 12:23pm, Ilya sent a Google Meet link. Greg was told that he was being removed from the board (but was vital to the company and would retain his role) and that Sam had been fired. Around the same time, OpenAI published a blog post,” he said.

Microsoft response

Microsoft, which has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI, has told The Verge that it will continue to partner with the company. "We have a long-term partnership with OpenAI and Microsoft remains committed to Mira and their team as we bring this next era of AI to our customers," Microsoft said.

Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella said that the company has a long-term agreement with OpenAI and remains committed to their partnership. “As you saw at Microsoft Ignite this week, we're continuing to rapidly innovate for this era of AI, with over 100 announcements across the full tech stack – from AI systems, models, and tools in Azure, to Copilot. Most importantly, we're committed to delivering all of this to our customers while building for the future. We have a long-term agreement with OpenAI with full access to everything we need to deliver on our innovation agenda and an exciting product roadmap; and remain committed to our partnership, and to Mira and the team. Together, we will continue to deliver the meaningful benefits of this technology to the world,” Satya posted on X.

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