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OpenAI’s future remains uncertain after extraordinary efforts by employees and investors to oust the board failed to persuade its directors to resign and reinstate co-founder Sam Altman.
By late Monday, 747 of OpenAI’s 770 employees had signed a letter threatening to resign and join Microsoft if the three holdout directors refused to resign and reverse their decision to fire Altman on Friday, according to people with direct knowledge. of the matter. .
Meanwhile, venture capitalists backing the generative AI startup backed the staff’s demands and were exploring legal measures to force the board to change course, according to several people with knowledge of their thinking. One person at a venture fund that invested in OpenAI said that “legal action could begin tomorrow,” without specifying what form it would take.
But the board remained determined and willing to test employees’ willingness to resign, according to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations between staff and board directors. In their letter, staff said the directors had “undermined our mission and the company” by firing Altman and stripping co-founder Greg Brockman of his board seat. Brockman subsequently left the company.
Ilya Sutskever, the last remaining co-founder on the board and chief scientist at OpenAI, signed the staff letter after apologizing on social media for his role in Altman’s firing, without saying he would leave the board. He had been under increasing pressure from staff to change his position over the weekend, according to people familiar with the situation.
Altman’s firing has plunged Silicon Valley’s most lauded startup into a deep crisis with no obvious solution. OpenAI has been at the forefront of the rise of artificial intelligence, which many consider the most significant technological advance since the smartphone or the creation of the Internet.
It has also presented a business opportunity for rival AI companies that were blindsided by OpenAI’s launch of its popular ChatGPT chatbot last year. On Monday, companies like Anthropic and Cohere were facing a surge in interest from OpenAI customers looking to hedge their bets in case sclerosis at the startup continued, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. According to an investor in the startup, rivals were also “crawling for all the staff” at OpenAI in a bid to attract talented researchers.
In a social media post on Monday, Marc Benioff, CEO of software company Salesforce, asked OpenAI researchers to send him their CVs and offered to match their salaries. Mustafa Suleyman, founder of AI startup Inflection, posted that the events at OpenAI were “very sad” but that his company was growing. “Come run with us!” he added.
In their letter, staff threatened to leave the company “imminently” if the board did not change course. Microsoft on Sunday pledged to hire Altman, Brockman and any other OpenAI staff who decided to join them in a new AI research subsidiary.
In addition to Sutskever, OpenAI’s directors are Adam D’Angelo, CEO of the question-and-answer service Quora, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
On Sunday night, they snubbed Altman, who had reappeared at OpenAI headquarters, and anointed Emmett Shear, co-founder of video streaming service Twitch, as interim CEO. He replaced Mira Murati, the chief technology officer who had been promoted to interim chief executive on Friday. On Monday afternoon, OpenAI’s first investor, Vinod Khosla, had called on Shear to resign.
With both sides entrenched, Altman’s biggest supporter, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, said he would support the OpenAI co-founder. In interviews broadcast Monday, Nadella said he could not say who would be CEO as of Tuesday morning, but that he would continue to support Altman whether he returned to OpenAI or worked in-house at Microsoft. The software giant has been OpenAI’s biggest backer, providing hardware support and a number of investments.
Nadella said the 38-year-old businessman could continue his side projects while working at Microsoft. Altman has a nuclear fission company and a cryptocurrency project and has tried to start a device company and a chip business, according to people with knowledge of the matter. “We will work on the governance aspects,” Nadella said.
Ibrahim Ajami, head of ventures at Mubadala Capital, part of Mubadala Investment Company, a $284 billion Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, said the chaos at OpenAI had highlighted why “it is very difficult to fund these companies today in day”. Mubadala has a partnership with Microsoft but has not invested in OpenAI.
“As long-term investors, we would value companies for their customers, deep partnerships, talent and long-term defensible moat,” he said. “Where is all that today with OpenAI?”
Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson in San Francisco