The days-long saga at the helm of the world’s best known AI business took another turn this morning after ChatGPT maker OpenAI said it would hire the former boss of Twitch as its new CEO, while its ousted exec Sam Altman would move to lead investor Microsoft to run an AI research team.
Altman was abruptly sacked as OpenAI CEO on Friday after a statement by the board that it “no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” in a moved that sent shockwaves through the tech world and sparked a string of resignations from the business.
Altman arrived at OpenAI's San Francisco headquarters on Sunday for crunch talks with senior company execs in a bid to be reinstated as chief executive. The meeting is reported to have been mediated by Satya Nadella, CEO of lead investor Microsoft, with talk of Altman's proposed reinstatement said to have been conditional on the removal of existing board members who voted to fire him.
But those talks appear to have fallen through as Nadella said this morning that Altman would instead be hired at Microsoft and be replaced at OpenAI by the former boss of streaming service Twitch Emmett Shear.
Some believe a tension over OpenAI's pivot toward a ruthless drive on profit-making was responsible for an apparent rift at senior levels in the company. The firm was founded as a non-profit, but subsequently restructured to include a for-profit subsidiary, which continued to be governed by the board members of its non-profit parent.
There have also been reports of internal divisions over the company’s AI safety policies, with some expressing concern over safety considerations. According to the Wall Street Journal, OpenAI’s chief scientist and co-founder Ilya Sutskever had been “worried about the long-term safety” of OpenAI’s products and was keen for greater alignment with human values.
Shear denied that Altman was removed from OpenAI’s board over safety concerns but said he would commission an independent investigation into the events that led up to his departure.
“It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust,” Shear said.
“OpenAI’s stability and success are too important to allow turmoil to disrupt them like this. I will drive changes in the organisation — up to and including pushing strongly for significant governance changes if necessary.”
"This latest drama reiterates a lesson that much of the technology world has overlooked in the last few years - that good governance and boards matter," James Wise, a venture capitalist at Balderton Capital, told the Standard.
"OpenAI’s board did not scale as the company did. The five-person board seems not to have even informed Microsoft, with whom it has a $10 billion deal, ahead of Sam’s firing.
"Compare this to the early board of Facebook, which even in its infancy included the likes of Peter Thiel, one of the world’s greatest technology entrepreneurs, and Jim Breyer, a fabled venture capitalist with experience of many corporate successes and failures."
Altman's replacement, Emmett Shear, became CEO of video streaming site Twitch in 2011. In 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch for an industry-shaking $970 million. Shear is thought to have made $100 million from the sale.
Like Altman, 40-year-old Shear has also worked as a partner at San Francisco-based technology venture capital firm, Y Combinator.