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Sam Altman won’t explain why OpenAI fired him, but it wasn’t about AI safety

Published Nov 30th, 2023 2:14PM EST
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman interviewing Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Image: YouTube

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ChatGPT creators OpenAI went through a few days of hell just before Thanksgiving, with the board firing and then rehiring Sam Altman. It all happened in the span of five days, during which OpenAI named two other people as CEO.

Leadership changes aren’t unusual in the corporate world. Neither is the related drama. But OpenAI isn’t just another big tech company. ChatGPT is responsible for one of the biggest tech innovations in recent years, signaling the dawn of artificial intelligence that is available to the general public.

ChatGPT and products like it will lead to AGI, which are AI computer programs that can reason just like humans do. There are worries that bad AGI could lead to world-ending events, at least for the human species. That’s why any conflict between a board whose main goal is to defend the development of safe AI and a CEO who might want to turn a profit from AI products needs a thoughtful, detailed explanation.

OpenAI, the non-profit, governs the OpenAI for-profit endeavor. The board of the former fired Sam Altman. Neither party is willing to explain what happened the Friday before Thanksgiving, though an investigation is underway.

Sam Altman spoke to The Verge about OpenAI’s five days of drama. The first question he had to field is probably a question that he’ll have to answer in plenty of interviews until the board releases the conclusions of the independent investigation: Why was he fired?

Unsurprisingly, Altman avoided a direct answer. He said the board will do an independent review. “I very much welcome that. I don’t have much else to say now, but I’m looking forward to learning more,” he said.

He also couldn’t say why the board lost trust in him and decided to fire him. As for the misunderstandings between Altman and the board, the CEO refrained from detailing them.

“I don’t feel ready to go talk about that yet,” he said. “I think it’s very important to let this review process run. I’m happy to talk about anything forward-looking. And I imagine there’ll be some time where I’m very happy to talk about what happened here, but not now.”

OpenAI's store for custom GPTs based on ChatGPT.
OpenAI’s store for custom GPTs based on ChatGPT. Image source: YouTube

Altman also said that he has a “mountain of very difficult, important, and urgent work” right now, so his area of focus isn’t getting a seat on the board. Reports said after Altman’s rehiring that he’ll want a seat on the board. But in his remarks to The Verge, he didn’t deny interest in having a seat on the OpenAI board.

The CEO also addressed improving the governance structure of OpenAI, a comment he made in his letter to employees upon his return. But Altman didn’t provide specifics, choosing to say that the board will handle the matter at some point in the future.

“Clearly our governance structure had a problem,” Altman said. “And the best way to fix that problem is gonna take a while. And I totally get why people want an answer right now. But I also think it’s totally unreasonable to expect it.”

Pressed on the matter, Altman said that designing a good governance structure for a company developing “such an impactful technology is not a one week question.” It’ll take a “real amount of time” for the board to think it through.

One important aspect that the OpenAI leadership addressed during the interview was AI safety. Mira Murati, who is also back as CTO of the company, said that the events that have just unfolded have nothing to do with AI safety. At least we have that on the record. The full interview is available at this link.

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.

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