Sam Altman’s ouster from OpenAI has spiralled into more chaos. Speculations have been rife around what led to his unceremonious exit, only to join Microsoft later. The board that was responsible for sacking Altman had stated that the former OpenAI CEO lacked ‘consistent candour in his communications with the board members’.
Following this, the company’s CTO Mira Murati was named the interim CEO only to be replaced later by Emmet Shear, the co-founder of Twitch. In all the drama that unfolded following the sacking of Altman, there have been numerous theories surrounding what led to Altman’s ouster and the removal of OpenAI president Greg Brockman from the board, who resigned hours later.
Now, it seems Custom GPTs that were introduced at OpenAI’s first-ever developer conference on November 6 may have had some impact on all that reigning chaos. To understand this we need to first understand the board that fired Altman. OpenAI has a rather unusual corporate structure where its directors don’t hold any equity or other compensation. Altman only held shares indirectly through his investments made via Y Combinator, a firm where he was president earlier.
The board that fired Altman
The board that fired Altman included Adam D’Angelo, the CEO of Quora, Tasha McCauley a senior management scientist at RAND Corporation; Ilya Sutskever – the only remaining cofounder of OpenAI, and Helen Toner, director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
D’Angelo’s Quora developed an AI product called POE earlier this year. With the explosion of AI chatbots after the success of ChatGPT, a platform like POE was expected to be a one-stop platform for all chatbots, essentially a single interface for all chatbots. Reportedly, D’Angelo may have been unhappy about the launch of Custom GPTs by OpenAI. This is because in essence Custom GPTs directly compete with POE.
Quora, which is one of the most popular social question-and-answer sites, integrated AI with the launch of POE. The new addition allowed users to create bots and access various functionalities much similar to the newly launched Custom GPTs. This chatter in the AI community related to the resemblance between POE and Custom GPTs seems to have added fuel to the fire. This is highlighted by many as the potential source of conflict.
Besides there have been indications that Altman may have not been transparent about the monetisation and competitive applications of Custom GPTs. Lack of transparency is seen as the biggest cause of indignation for D’Angelo and this also led to the board’s ultimate decision. It is also believed that D’Angelo’s actions were motivated by his desire to eliminate any competition for POE from Custom GPTs.
It needs to be noted that the above case is speculative and is based on theories floated around by AI enthusiasts and YouTubers. However, most agree that conflict of interest would have been the biggest reason behind the board’s action against Altman and not AI Safety as widely believed. This was also indicated in Emmett Shear’s X post where he stated that the board did not remove Altman over a specific disagreement on safety, and that the reasoning was entirely different.
Today I got a call inviting me to consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to become the interim CEO of @OpenAI. After consulting with my family and reflecting on it for just a few hours, I accepted. I had recently resigned from my role as CEO of Twitch due to the birth of my…
— Emmett Shear (@eshear) November 20, 2023
In all this chaos, a lot of questions remain unanswered and a lot more does not add up. Ilya Sutskever who helped oust Altman tweeted two days later that he regretted his participation in the board’s actions. “I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company,” read his post on X.
I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.
— Ilya Sutskever (@ilyasut) November 20, 2023
Incidentally, he also undersigned an open letter to the board that expressed dissatisfaction with its decision. In the same letter, employees threatened to join a new Microsoft subsidiary led by Altman and Brockman. The letter is signed by 702 people and OpenAI has a staff strength of 770 people. Nearly 95 per cent of OpenAI staff are threatening to leave if the board does not resign.
Microsoft’s involvement has further complicated the situation as CEO Satya Nadella expressed uncertainty about the reasons for sacking Altman and also indicated his willingness to work with the ousted OpenAI CEO. From investor concerns, and legal actions to a potential merger with Anthropic, all at a time when there has been clamour around the development of AGI by OpenAI, the mystery only deepens. At this stage, it is difficult to discern fact from fiction, and only the future can tell what’s in store for OpenAI and Sam Altman.