As a ChatGPT user, Sam Altman’s return as CEO feels like good news. I don’t have to worry about a mass exodus of OpenAI employees fleeing to Microsoft. Or about Microsoft suddenly controlling the entire future of ChatGPT. At the same time, I want to know exactly what prompted the OpenAI board to fire the well-liked CEO so suddenly that not even Microsoft got a proper warning.
We need to know whether there’s a real cause for concern about AI. And if there is, we need to know what’s being done to prevent this from ever happening again. Just as we need to know if something more petty was afoot here, and Altman’s brief removal from his position has a simpler explanation.
AI companies aren’t like regular tech firms
I wouldn’t really care if Tim Cook had to quit Apple or the company fired him. I’d still know the company would continue creating the same products I’m used to. The next person in charge should keep adhering to Apple’s core values and drive the company forward.
Similarly, I’m certain that Satya Nadella’s successor at Microsoft will continue to drive the software giant forward. Though they’d have some very big shoes to fill, just like Cook’s replacement.
I also don’t care that someone spent tens of billions to buy Twitter and run it into the ground. I just go on about my day, fully knowing I’ll never trust that app with anything, let alone trusting X with everything.
OpenAI is not a public company, of course. It doesn’t have to make the kind of disclosures that Apple and Microsoft do. However, it can’t move on from the Altman drama without explaining what caused it.
When it comes to generative AI and the dawn of AGI, I do worry. Let’s not forget that ChatGPT has been training on massive amounts of data, skirting copyright and privacy, at least initially. It still uses our data to train future models. And we need to know that data is handled responsibly. I’d prefer to keep my chats with ChatGPT out of training, but that’s another thing.
I don’t necessarily fear AI getting out of hand and causing the extinction of the human race. But what if it could happen?
Speculation about Sam Altman’s firing is wild
OpenAI is a complicated entity. The board, which fired and rehired Altman, governs the non-profit that started it all. The mission of the non-profit is to develop safe AI for the world.
Sam Altman, meanwhile, is pursuing for-profit endeavors that allow the non-profit to function. However, the latter has the final say.
After the events between Friday and Tuesday, that much is clear. The board is powerful. But the non-profit also needs money to operate. That’s where the for-profit parts come into play. Therefore, the board can be swayed.
Let’s not forget about Microsoft, which is the main investor in OpenAI, and the company that provides all the compute ChatGPT needs.
In the aftermath of Altman’s firing, I saw plenty of speculation on what went on. The story seems to be that the board didn’t like the speed Altman was operating at. The CEO reportedly sought big investments that would allow the creation of OpenAI-adjacent ventures, which would create custom AI chips and commercial ChatGPT hardware.
I’m just speculating here, but that speed might have meant rushing ChatGPT features to the public before they were fully ready. That’s the only way to convince the world of OpenAI’s superiority.
Then there were theories about OpenAI having developed a GPT-5 model that’s already too powerful. Or having reached AGI. Or both. And that’s when Ilya Sutskever wanted to hit the breaks. As we learned by Monday, Sutskever backtracked, and it appeared that he wasn’t the main driving force behind Altman’s ouster.
Others said that Adam D’Angelo might be the person to blame for the recent events. A member of the former and current OpenAI board, D’Angelo is also the CEO and co-founder of Quora. Now, Quora has created Poe, an AI chatbot that rivals ChatGPT. In October, Poe announced a storefront for custom bots.
A month later, Sam Altman announced the custom GPTs based on ChatGPT at DevDay, a feature that many people are excited about, myself included. Custom GPTs will have a storefront of their own. There’s clear competition here between the Poe store and the custom GPT marketplace.
But what if something even pettier than that is the reason why Altman was fired? Maybe he ate someone’s yogurt one day and never replaced it.
An investigation will follow
Interestingly, as some joked online, for a person who runs Quora, D’Angelo sure can’t answer why the OpenAI board fired Sam Altman. Not even Emmett Shear, the OpenAI CEO who replaced interim CEO Mira Murati, got an answer. Back to Microsoft, Satya Nadella said in interviews he had no idea why the board fired Altman.
The new OpenAI board will have a mission to vet and appoint an expanded board of up to 9 people, according to The Verge. Microsoft wants a seat on that board. So does Altman.
Again, the complex nature of the OpenAI entity comes into play. The board has to safeguard the mission of the non-profit. Having board members who chase profits might not be the best idea. Expanding the OpenAI board seems like a must, however.
More importantly, the report notes that both sides have agreed on an investigation. An independent law firm will reportedly perform it. But we’re still in the early days of this new deal. The Verge notes that, “based on our conversations with people involved, the very human power struggle at the center of all this seems not yet completely over.”
With all that in mind, I certainly can’t trust OpenAI until I get answers. It doesn’t matter how much charisma Altman has or how much OpenAI engineers love him. ChatGPT users need answers.
Let’s also remember that OpenAI employees would have had a chance to cash out big on a share sale that would have valued the company at $90 billion. That’s a good reason to want to follow Altman rather than stick with the board. Even though the board might have been doing its job all along, keeping AI at bay.