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Microsoft hires former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman to head new AI team

Microsoft scooping up Altman followed the OpenAI Board’s decision to relieve him from his position, explaining in a note that Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications with the board,”.

After a weekend of drama, Microsoft late on November 19 pulled a surprise by announcing that former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and former OpenAI President Greg Brockman will head the new advanced AI research team at Microsoft.

Sam Altman was unceremoniously and unexpectedly fired by the OpenAI board on November 17. “Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI,” the Board reasoned in its announcement.

As per the account of events shared by Greg Brockman, Altman found out about his firing only a few minutes before it took place. Microsoft, which is one of the largest investors in OpenAI (rumored to be worth around $10 billion), was also reportedly caught off-guard by the announcement. Brockman, who was sacked as chair of the board but allowed to continue as president, quit the company in solidarity with Altman.

However, in an unexpected twist the next day, The Verge reported that the OpenAI board was in talks with Sam Altman to return as CEO. Altman received a public show of support on X from many of the OpenAI employees as the discussions were ongoing, suggesting that many would leave with Altman if he doesn’t return to OpenAI. The discussions, mediated by Satya Nadella, extended another day till the evening of November 19, but as is clear now, Altman is not returning to OpenAI.

Meanwhile, OpenAI unexpectedly hired former Twitch CEO and co-founder Emmett Shear to serve as interim CEO (which makes it three CEOs in three days: Altman, Mira Murati, and now Shear). Shear has shared on X the details of his appointment, what he thinks of Altman’s firing, and what’s his immedaite plan for OpenAI.

Satya Nadella said that Microsoft is committed to its partnership with OpenAI under Shear’s leadership, but only time will tell if Microsoft really is.

It now remains to be seen who all from OpenAI will join Microsoft to continue working under Sam Altman. Brockman has already named three others will be joining him and Altman.

Nikhil’s take: 

“It’s a face-saving move by Microsoft to protect the stock price, even as their OpenAI investment now looks like a disaster. Whether Sam Altman and his team will be involved in remotely running the for-profit arm of OpenAI remains to be seen, and Microsoft might use this situation to increase its leverage within OpenAI. OpenAI now becomes a research lab for Microsoft. It’s great leadership from Satya Nadella, though: even though he and Microsoft were apparently blind-sided by the sacking of Sam Altman, and the mass resignation within OpenAI would have destroyed the company, he has made the best of the situation by also ensuring that Altman doesn’t set up a company to compete with OpenAI and Microsoft. Nadella took ownership of the situation and brought it to a swift conclusion: weeks of negotiation and uncertainty would have really hurt Microsoft here.” — Nikhil Pahwa, Founder and Editor, MediaNama

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