Wed | Dec 6, 2023

Microsoft hires co-founders of ChatGPT creator OpenAI

Published:Tuesday | November 21, 2023 | 12:07 AM
Co-founder of OpenAI Sam Altman.
Co-founder of OpenAI Sam Altman.

Microsoft on Monday hired two leading executives from the company that created ChatGPT after one of them was abruptly fired by OpenAI, the start-up whose chatbot kicked off the era of generative artificial intelligence.

The developments followed a weekend of drama that shocked the AI field and fuelled speculation about how the changes would shake out at OpenAI, which named Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, as interim chief executive on Friday and then replaced her on Sunday. The newest CEO vowed to investigate the firing of co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, one of the world’s most sought-after experts on AI.

Former OpenAI President Greg Brockman, also a co-founder, quit in protest after Altman was fired.

Microsoft, which has been a close partner of the company and invested billions of dollars in it, announced that Altman and Brockman would lead its new advanced AI research team.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was “extremely excited” to bring on the pair and looked “forward to getting to know” the new management team at OpenAI.

In a reply on X, Altman said “the mission continues”. And Brockman posted: “We are going to build something new & it will be incredible.”

OpenAI said on Friday that Altman was pushed out 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.

In an X post on Monday, OpenAI’s new interim chief executive, Emmett Shear, said he would hire an independent investigator to look into Altman’s ouster and write a report within 30 days.

“It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal” were handled “very badly”, wrote Shear, who co-founded Twitch, an Amazon-owned livestreaming service popular with video gamers.

He said he also plans in the next month to “reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force” and speak with employees, investors and customers.

After that, Shear said he would “drive changes in the organisation”, including “significant governance changes if necessary”.

He noted that the reason behind the board removing Altman was not a “specific disagreement on safety”. It was likely a reference to the debates that have swirled around OpenAI’s mission to safely build AI that is “generally smarter than humans”.

OpenAI last week declined to answer questions about Altman’s alleged lack of candour. Its statement said his behaviour was hindering the board’s ability to exercise its responsibilities.

A key driver of the shake-up, OpenAI’s co-founder, chief scientist and board member Ilya Sutskever, expressed regrets for his participation in the ouster.

“I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company,” he said Monday on X.

Hundreds of OpenAI employees signed a letter that began circulating early Monday calling for the board’s resignation and Altman’s return, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press. The board consists of Sutskever, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

The copy showed that the number of signatures amounted to a majority of the company’s 770 employees. The AP was not able to independently confirm that all of the signatures were from OpenAI employees.

A company spokesperson confirmed that the board received the letter.

A Microsoft representative said the company would not comment beyond its CEO’s statement.

It’s not clear what transpired between the announcement of Murati’s interim role on Friday and Shear’s hiring.

Shear said he took the new job because he believes “that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence”.

On a podcast in June, Shear said he’s generally optimistic about AI, but has serious concerns about building something “a lot smarter than us”, and whether doing so could endanger humans.

That’s an issue that Altman consistently faced after helping catapult ChatGPT to global fame based on its ability to produce human-like text, images, video and music.

In the past year, he has become Silicon Valley’s most in-demand voice on the promise and potential dangers of artificial intelligence.

“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.

Microsoft is now in an even stronger position on AI, Ives said.