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The Week OpenAI Unravelled - A Summary of What Happened and Why it Matters


The week before Sam Altman (CEO) was fired from OpenAI, I wrote an article about a controversy brewing globally in artificial intelligence. Altman had publicly announced the company's intention to achieve Artificial General Intelligence by 2027, stating that the six-member OpenAI non-profit board of directors would determine if they had succeeded.


This concentration of power and decision-making on an issue so central to humanity raised the hackles of AI ethicists worldwide. Lawsuits were filed, with opinion pieces saturating professional networking sites, especially LinkedIn. This was Breaking News at the time, yet reverberations continued among other interested parties, including investors, with the full impact still to come. By Friday, the entire AI world had turned upside down. This article was first published as a play-by-play during the chaotic weekend, then summarized the following week for readers of The Rowan Report.


Subscribe for FREE to The Rowan Report: Healthcare at Home where you will find my 2023 series on AI, Growth Strategy and The Agency of the Future. This was a "living" report, updated throughout the week as the drama unfolded. For continued updates, subscribe to The Rowan Report, follow me on LinkedIn and join the HomeCareFuturists LinkedIn Group.


 

Created by Heather Thompson using Generative AI

Altman Out


Last Friday: OpenAI suddenly announced the dismissal of CEO Sam Altman, followed by the removal of Greg Brockman from the Board of Directors. This subsequently led to Brockman's resignation from OpenAI, along with three prominent senior scientists.


By Saturday Morning: It appeared that Altman might be reinstated. Rumors started to fly — Were investors insisting that they bring him back? Would the Board of Directors be fired? Did Altman have a master plan to create a competing company? Was Microsoft behind all of this? Did the Board of Directors resign? Are aliens involved? I'm just kidding on the last one, but LinkedIn read like TMZ this weekend with minute-by-minute conjecture.


As of Sunday Evening: It looked like the dust had settled enough that we could hit "send" on this article. We decided to sleep on it.


Monday Morning: I woke up to several announcements in the middle of the night Pacific Time (early morning Eastern) that changed everything once again.

  • Microsoft hired both Altman and Brockman (and several senior researchers);

  • OpenAI announced that they hired Emmett Shear as Interim CEO (40-year-old co-founder of the live streaming company Twitch);

  • A letter was sent by no less than 505 OpenAI employees to the OpenAI board of directors, threatening to leave immediately with assurances that they had positions waiting at Microsoft.

A Deeper Dive


Back to what happened on Friday: When the non-profit OpenAI Board of Directors suddenly announced the dismissal of CEO Sam Altman on Friday, their statement took the world by surprise:

"Mr. Altman'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. OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure that Artificial General Intelligence benefits all humanity. The board remains fully committed to serving this mission."

Focused on a lack of communication and their unwavering commitment to ethical AGI, speculation began to swirl about the real reasons behind Altman's sudden firing. In order to discern fact from rumor, however, it is important to understand a bit of the backstory.



An AI Produced Image - How it Perceives Itself - By Heather Thompson


Did a Question of Board Governance Expose a Rift?


Sharon Goldman with VentureBeat is the journalist who broke the OpenAI controversy I wrote about last week: OpenAI's board: From AI safety to mutiny | The AI Beat | VentureBeat. In a reflection posted on her Substackblog after Altman was fired, Goldman discussed the events leading up to her groundbreaking story. She said that she felt admittedly "silly" chasing down what seemed to be merely a tedious issue of Board Governance.


Haven't we all questioned ourselves when we diverged from the crowd in favor of listening to the tiny nudges? It turns out that her intuition exposed issues that may have ultimately led to the extraordinary events of the last few days. I wondered what caught her attention. According to Goldman, it was the following post on X (Twitter):


Logan.GPT @OfficialLoganK "Fifth, the board determines when we've attained AGI. Again, by AGI, we mean a highly autonomous system that outperforms humans at the most economically valuable work. Such a system is excluded from IP licenses and other commercial terms with Microsoft, which only apply to pre-AGI technology." 11:57 AM • Nov 11, 2023

Goldman said in her Substack follow-up:

"That got me thinking — 'yikes.' Basically, according to OpenAI, the six members of its nonprofit board of directors will determine when the company has attained AGI, but putting all this power in the hands of a half-dozen? Keep in mind, the very definition of artificial general intelligence is far from agreed-upon — so what does it mean to have this group deciding on whether AGI has been reached — for OpenAI and, therefore, the world? And what will the timing and context of that potential future decision mean for its biggest investor, Microsoft?"

That is when Goldman began to reach out to lawyers. While she learned that the board governance structure was legal, many found her report disturbing. Criticism came from all corners of the world, and the non-profit OpenAI board was under immense pressure due to Altman's AGI announcement. Though we didn't know it yet, OpenAI was unraveling from the inside out.


An AI Produced Image - How it Perceives Itself - By Heather Thompson

An Ideological Divide


As the weekend unfolded, speculation gave way to verified interviews about an ideological divide within OpenAI, especially concerning the trade-off between rapid growth and essential safety considerations in advanced AI development. Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever (also a member of the non-profit board) was reported to have played a significant role in the firing of Altman as he held serious concerns about the rapidity and safety of OpenAI's technological advancements.


"This was the board doing its duty to the mission of the nonprofit, which is to make sure that OpenAI builds AGI that benefits all of humanity," Sutskever told employees on Friday afternoon.


Additional insight came from an internal memo by Brad Lightcap, OpenAI's Chief Operating Officer, in which he clarified that Altman's dismissal was not related to misconduct or deficiencies in financial, business, safety, or security practices. Instead, he pointed to a breakdown in communication between Altman and the Board as the primary issue.


Over the Weekend


While the weekend was filled with detailed articles, YouTube videos, and posts with theories about what was happening behind the scenes, few details were concrete and validated:

  • In a letter sent to the board of directors over the weekend and posted on LinkedIn late Sunday, 505 employees accused the OpenAI board of mishandling Altman's firing, failing to provide sufficient evidence for claims that Altman had not been candid with the board, and "negotiating in bad faith." The letter warned that they would "imminently" follow Altman to Microsoft unless the board resigned and reinstated Altman/Brockman.


  • CNN reported on Monday morning that Mira Murati was one of the signatories. As recently as Friday, she had been named by the board as Altman's interim successor. This came as a surprise. Perhaps more surprising was the name Ilya Sutskever on the letter. You will recall that he is OpenAI's co-founder, chief scientist and board member who had been widely reported as having played a role in Altman's dismissal. (Confused yet? So are we.)


  • Altman spent the weekend at OpenAI. It was rumored that discussions centered on reinstating him as CEO and potentially firing the board, but the outcome had yet to be reported by the end of the day on Sunday.


An AI Produced Image - How it Perceives Itself - By Heather Thompson

Monday Morning


The news broke in the middle of the night that Altman wasn't returning to OpenAI. In fact, a massive shift took place that few anticipated. Here's where it stands as of this moment:

  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced overnight that Altman and Brockman would lead a new AI division. Immediately, shares of the tech giant jumped 1% to 2.78 Trillion. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on Twitter: "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 OAI'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 Al research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success."


  • Venture Beat founder Matt Marshall explained it best: "On the face of it, this is a huge win for Microsoft, because it gets Altman's growth DNA in the hottest area of tech: generative AI. Altman and Brockman represented the hard-charging, growth minded product side of OpenAI's business. OpenAI was raising money at terms that value the company at between $80 and $90 billion, meaning Microsoft would have had to pay tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars to acquire OpenAI if it ever wanted to. Now, Microsoft is getting OpenAI's main assets (its brains), and the OpenAI models will probably follow — all presumably at a massive discount. What a bargain, right?" venturebeat.com/ai/microsoft-emerges-at-ultimate-winner-in-openai-power-struggle-shares-jump-1-percent


  • Monday, as news of the employee letter emerged, Sutskever posted an apology on X (Twitter) that acknowledged his contribution to the leadership crisis, which appeared to revolve around tensions between Altman and the board about the pace and scope of AI development. "I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions," he said. "I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we've built together, and I will do everything I can to reunite the company." cnn.com/2023/11/20/tech/openai-employees-quit-mira-murati-sam-altman/index.html


An AI Produced Image - How it Perceives Itself - By Heather Thompson

Breaking News - Updated As it Happened


A young woman with an AI Brain interfacing
Genenerative AI Art by Heather Thompson

Tuesday, Nov 21, 11 PM - ALTMAN IS BACK Posted moments ago on LinkedIn by OpenAI - “We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board of Bret Taylor (Chair), Larry Summers, and Adam D'Angelo. We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this.” 

Tuesday, Nov 21, 9 PM OpenAI Talks Continue as Sam Altman, Company Push to Reunite - Internal memo says, ‘Our number one goal remains to reunify OpenAI and discussions are actively ongoing’ - Read in The Wall Street Journal: https://apple.news/AJ_e13NEWSdawESXKR2MsAw

Monday, Nov 20, 10 PM

  • OpenAI continues to unravel with the announcement that the board approached Anthropic for a potential merger following the firing of Sam Altman. Additionally, the prominent former CEOs of Github and Scale AI both declined the opportunity to serve as OpenAI CEO.benzinga.com/amp/content/35886373


  • Microsoft stock reached an all-time high as reported by the Seattle Times (my neck of the woods).seattletimes.com/business/microsofts-stock-hits-record-high-after-hiring-openai-outcasts/


  • A stunning turn of events! Bloomberg reporter Emily Chang posted the following statement and interview on LinkedIn:“I conducted a late-breaking interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella today. My assessment: This may be the wildest story I have ever covered in my career. Even after listening to this interview, I can't figure out what Sam Altman may have done wrong to be fired from OpenAI and Satya shows no inkling of knowing anything untoward. Also, he definitely signals he wants Altman to be reinstated. Watch and tell me what you think! Who will be CEO of OpenAI tomorrow?” Watch the Interview Now.


What Happens Now?


My continued AI advice is to exercise caution, make informed decisions, and ask many questions. In the meantime, I will offer more insight and details about this ongoing story in the next edition of the Rowan Report and breaking news alerts in our online publication. You can also stay informed by following me on LinkedIn and joining the HomeCare Futurists & AI Group. Until then…Happy Thanksgiving!


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About Heather Thompson

CEO, NOVELORICA


Heather Thompson began writing for the Home Care Technology Report in March 2023, focusing on Artificial Intelligence, Growth Strategy, and The Agency of the Future. Having earned her reputation as a Healthcare Futurist, Heather brings over three decades of experience. She has dedicated 25 years to home healthcare, delving deep into diverse domains such as business intelligence, technology, association management, provider consulting, sales/marketing/business development, strategic planning, financial management, and more.


Having walked the path as a caregiver and a patient living with chronic illness and rare disease, Heather was recently named a Global Advisor to the disability advocacy organization Billion-Strong #wearebillionstrong and a Top Voice on LinkedIn for Community Outreach. A peek into her story reveals she is a rare acquired savant and polymath, an internationally published writer, award-winning artist, practicing contemplative, and seasoned entrepreneur. To get in touch with Heather, you can reach out through:

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