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Satya Nadella doesn’t know if Sam Altman actually works for Microsoft

Published Nov 21st, 2023 6:50AM EST
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman interviewing Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Image: YouTube

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In a stunning turn of events, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella managed to pull the move of the century so far. It got the best possible Black Friday deal: Microsoft practically hired a part of OpenAI, without buying the company, when it announced its new AI division that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman would lead. Joining them to work on ChatGPT and future AI products would be plenty of OpenAI employees.

Then, some 700 OpenAI engineers, including Ilya Sutskever, threatened the OpenAI board to defect to Microsoft if Altman wasn’t reinstated and the board resigned.

Altman’s hire aside, Microsoft would still work with whatever remains of OpenAI. The software giant is the biggest OpenAI investor.

All of that drove up the Microsoft stock, adding some $63 billion in market value on Monday.

But then things took another strange twist, which shouldn’t shock anyone considering the OpenAI drama we’ve witnessed since Friday. Satya Nadella doesn’t know whether Altman actually works for Microsoft. More worryingly, he doesn’t know why the board fired Altman in the first place.

Microsoft’s commitment to AI is crystal clear

Microsoft’s CEO appeared in interviews on CNBC and Bloomberg, where he had to field questions about the recent events at OpenAI. That’s where he had to address questions about Altman’s hiring process and what went on at OpenAI.

Nadella focused on a few specific talking points during the interview, like ensuring the world knows that Microsoft is committed to working with OpenAI and Sam Altman in any capacity, regardless of the leadership changes or what happens with Altman.

He also stressed Microsoft’s own AI work independent from OpenAI and ChatGPT. The latter was hugely important for Nadella, a clear talking point he kept pivoting to.

Nadella wanted to assure investors and customers that Microsoft is still very committed to AI development. That Microsoft is a leader in the space, with or without OpenAI. And that it’ll continue its work in the field regardless of what happens. He did point out to CNBC that Altman has chosen Microsoft twice so far, proving that Microsoft is an innovator in the space.

Sam Altman isn’t a Microsoft employee yet

However, Nadella couldn’t escape questions and had to provide some answers. It turns out the CEO has no firm idea of whether Sam Altman is going back to OpenAI or whether he’ll join Microsoft. There’s also the question of the 700+ OpenAI employees who seem ready to join Microsoft if that’s where Altman ends up.

Nadella told CNBC that it is for “OpenAI board and management and the employees to choose.” This implies that Altman’s fate hasn’t been decided. The exec answered the Altman question in a similar fashion on Bloomberg. He said that Altman and Brockman are “in the process of joining.”

The Microsoft CEO also addressed the company’s new ambitions for the AI team it’s willing to create under Altman. “I’m excited about […] creating another team that’s really going to have high ambition on Leading Edge Advanced Al work that Sam and Greg are excited about.”

The two parties have discussed a lot about what will happen with AI in the next few years. It’ll be interesting to see whether Nadella does create another AI entity within Microsoft if Sam Altman doesn’t leave OpenAI.

What does Altman say?

It’s not just Nadella having to address the recent developments at OpenAI. Sam Altman reacted on Twitter/X in the aftermath of OpenAI employees’ threat to quit the company unless the board resigned.

His comments, seen in the tweets above and below, seem to leave room for both scenarios. He could return to lead OpenAI. Or he could go to Microsoft.

Either way, Altman seems committed to OpenAI and ChatGPT. And to Microsoft.

Why was Altman fired?

Given Microsoft’s importance for OpenAI’s daily operations, you’d think he’d have some sort of insights into why the board fired Sam Altman on Friday. But Nadella acknowledged in his interview with Bloomberg that OpenAI did not inform him about their reasons.

Nadella cited the communication breakdown that the OpenAI board mentioned on Friday when announcing the removal of Altman. The Microsoft CEO said he continues to trust Altman’s capabilities and leadership.

Then again, maybe Nadella or Microsoft feel it’s best not to share such secrets.

Microsoft might want a seat on the board

What seems clear, in addition to Microsoft’s interest in AI and partnership with OpenAI for ChatGPT, is that the company will want some governance changes at OpenAI. Does that mean Nadella is looking for a seat on the board?

The exec said Microsoft “definitely will want some governance changes,” so surprises like what happened on Friday will not happen again. Microsoft will want to be in the loop on all future major changes. As a reminder, Microsoft was told about the decision to fire Altman a minute before it became public knowledge on Friday.

What happens next? Well, it’s only Tuesday. Anything seems possible. Bloomberg’s interview follows below in full.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.