What is going on at the firm behind ChatGPT?

Dan Milmo






What is OpenAI? OpenAI is the San Francisco-based company behind ChatGPT, a chatbot that has wowed users with its ability to produce highly convincing text responses to human prompts. It has also developed Dall-E, a tool that produces images from text prompts. Before last week’s events, OpenAI was reportedly in talks to complete a fundraising deal that would have valued the business at $80bn (£64bn). Sam Altman, its 38-year-old boss, was synonymous with the success of ChatGPT, which attracted 100 million users two months after its launch in November 2022. Why was Altman fired? OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit and its board oversees a commercial subsidiary of which Altman is CEO. On Friday, the board announced that it had fired him because “he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board” and was thus “hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities”. The board gave no further details about the communications in question. Altman’s successor as interim CEO, Emmett Shear, co-founder of the Twitch streaming platform, said the sacking was not due to any disagreement over safety. Experts and tech professionals have voiced concerns that companies like OpenAI are developing AI systems too rapidly and that such technology could ultimately pose an existential threat. However, it was reported that Altman has held discussions with Apple’s former design chief Jony Ive about building a new AI hardware device. What has happened since? In a weekend of corporate drama, OpenAI’s investors, led by the biggest, Microsoft, attempted to reinstate Altman. The move had the support of OpenAI staff including the then interim CEO, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, Mira Murati. Murati has since been replaced by OpenAI’s third CEO in three days, Shear. Yesterday, Microsoft announced it had hired Altman and the former OpenAI president Greg Brockman, to head a new advanced AI research unit. What does this mean for OpenAI? OpenAI’s 700-strong workforce is in uproar about Altman’s sacking. In an open letter to the board of directors published yesterday, almost every employee, including Murati, threatened to resign and join Microsoft unless the board quit and reinstated Altman and Brockman (who had resigned after he and Altman were axed from the board). One of the signatories was Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist and one of the four remaining board members. Sutskever said on Monday he “deeply” regretted his role in Altman’s departure. Could Microsoft buy OpenAI? Money would not be a major issue for Microsoft, even with OpenAI’s mooted $80bn price tag. But competition authorities in the US, UK and the EU would be expected to take a close look at consolidation in the nascent market for generative AI. Microsoft recently acquired the game company Activision Blizzard, a move heavily contested by regulators, and would face an even tougher battle with OpenAI – in which it owns a 49% stake. Will the furore slow down AI development? Microsoft has signalled that it is a ready home for OpenAI’s disgruntled talent and has already put Altman and Brockman to work. Its CEO, Satya Nadella, indicated that other OpenAI staff have already joined, amid reports that a trio of senior researchers had quit OpenAI. If Altman does not return, then it seems the work on advanced AI will continue under Microsoft directly. OpenAI still owns the powerful models behind ChatGPT. But Elon Musk’s latest venture, xAI, has shown how quickly powerful new models can be built. It unveiled Grok, a prototype AI chatbot, after what the company claimed was just a four months of development.