[UPDATE 22.11.2023 – 14:55 CET] Sam Altman has been reinstated as the CEO of OpenAI and the board agreed to a complete makeover. Even so, the saga is ongoing as it is now being reported that former board member Helen Toner was behind ousting Altman.
[21.11.2023 – 13:38 CET] In a new twist to the saga of Sam Altman's dismissal from OpenAI, commentators are now pointing to Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo as the OpenAI board member who pushed for Altman to be removed. Reports suggest a conflict of interest between AI products have led D'Angelo to protect the interests of his company over OpenAI.
The Story so Far
If you have been following the Sam Altman an OpenAI saga – and who hasn't? – you will know plenty has happened in just a few days. On Friday, Altman was dumped as CEO of OpenAI in a shocking move. Like the Red Dinner in Game of Thrones, or the assassination of Julius Cesar by Roman conspirators, OpenAI moved with swift and cold action that lit up the tech world.
i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people.
will have more to say about what's next later.
— Sam Altman (@sama) November 17, 2023
Shortly after the board of directors fired Sam Altman as the CEO of OpenAI, the co-founder and former chairman of the artificial intelligence research company, Greg Brockman, announced his departure from the organization. Three leading AI researchers also left the company to follow Altman.
Since then, there was quick condemnation by people in the industry, including Google founder Eric Schmidt. Long-time OpenAI partner Microsoft stood by the company, but CEO Satya Nadella was said to be enraged that he was not informed of the decision. After-all, his company has ploughed billions of dollars into OpenAI.
Nadella's fury was seemingly confirmed yesterday when he said that Altman, Brockman, and the researchers would take on roles at Microsoft. Altman was also apparently exploring creating a new company, one Nadella said Microsoft would back. In the backdrop of this, over the weekend Altman was back at OpenAI HQ and seemingly negotiating a return.
We remain committed to our partnership with OpenAI and have confidence in our product roadmap, our ability to continue to innovate with everything we announced at Microsoft Ignite, and in continuing to support our customers and partners. We look forward to getting to know Emmett…
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) November 20, 2023
While that is still a possibility, the focus is now on who was behind Altman's dismissal and the potential end of OpenAI? If it seems like hyperbole to say the whole company is under threat, it is not. Over 700 of the company's approximately 770 employees, including chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, have signed a letter demanding the board's resignation and Altman's reinstatement.
Three People Remain, Who Was Behing the Altman Plot?
Only three board members are left who have not pledged allegiance to Altman. They are Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
Chief Scientist and Co-founder alongside Altman, Ilya Sutskever, was originally believed to be leading the push to oust Altman from the company. Early reports place Sutskever at the center of the coup, citing his concerns about Altman's pushing against OpenAI's goals. This ranged from Altman apparently being dishonest right up to secretly discovering artificial general intelligence.
His decision to push Altman out, it was said, was a panic response to stop an out-of-control CEO from unleashing dangerous technology on the world. Science fiction stuff. Just yesterday, Sutskever was doubling down and standing by the decision to remove Altman.
It was only when Altman, Brockman, and three OpenAI scientists joined Microsoft that he seemed to change his stance. As part of “Team Sam”, Sutskever is pushing for Altman to be reinstated as CEO of OpenAI. He sent out a tweet saying he had “regret” over his part in the situation and wanted it to go away, while praising his partnership with Altman.
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
Is the AGI concern a real one? Is it possible Altman has been able to unlock AGI and board members are pushing a panic button to stop him? Of course, it is likely but there is plenty of reason why this is not the case. Elon Musk, another co-founder of OpenAI who has since left to become a vocal critic of the company sent out his own tweet. The now X and x.AI CEO asked if OpenAI was doing something dangerous, this needs to be publicly disclosed.
Why did you take such a drastic action?
If OpenAI is doing something potentially dangerous to humanity, the world needs to know.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 21, 2023
Altman himself has been a surprisingly candid commentator on the potential danger of AGI, saying he doesn't think the technology is ready. Lastly, it would be impossible for Altman to unlock AGI without support within the company, from employees and researchers. In other words, the evidence of such a discovery would be there and could be made public by concerned board members.
The True Mastermind Behind Altman's Dismissal?
So, everybody went back to head scratching. If Sutskever was not the mastermind, who was? Well with Altman and Brockman gone, Sutskever on team Sam, that leaves just three more board members: D'Angelo, McCauley, and Toner. One or all of these people are blocking Altman's return and were instrumental in his departure. It is worth noting their decision has been questioned by investors, co-workers, OpenAI employees, and long-time partner Microsoft but they still seem to be standing firm.
BREAKING: Ilya Sutskever, a co-founder of OpenAI, and 500 employees have signed a letter saying they will quit if Sam Altman does not return.
Strangely, Ilya Sutskever is the same person that has been accused of convincing the board to fire Altman.
OpenAI currently has just…
— The Kobeissi Letter (@KobeissiLetter) November 20, 2023
Out of the three remaining conspirators, Adam D'Angelo is increasingly looking like the person with the most to gain from Altman's demise. While D'Angelo is an OpenAI board member, his main interest is Quora, the company he co-founded and remains CEO of. People are now putting the pieces together and believe the D'Angelo is the main mastermind of the Altman saga.
Why? Well, because Quora has its own Poe service, which is a platform that allows customizable chatbots by interacting with large language models, including ChatGPT. That's fine, but earlier this month OpenAI launched its GPTs service, which essentially offer the exact same capabilities as Poe, and arguably even improves on them.
A Corporate Hit Job?
So, the person whose company can be most affected by the launch of GPTs is also the person with the most power and ability to single-handedly destroy OpenAI. What is the extent of this conflict of interest? Is it merely an inconvenience for D'Angelo or enough of a problem for him to wage a corporate war to remove Altman and throw OpenAI's whole future into doubt?
While it is easy to dismiss this claim that D'Angelo is behind the plot as a conspiracy theory, it is not entirely outlandish. He may be a board member of OpenAI, but his legal duty of care is on Quora and its shareholders. If the choice is between OpenAI and Quora, his allegiances will always align with the company he created and now oversees.
The tech world is slowly catching up to this theory. D'Angelo has a real reason and opportunity to remove his company's biggest competitor. However, the slight flaw here is that removing Altman does not necessarily remove OpenAI itself. GPTs still exist whether Altman is the CEO of OpenAI or not. Even so, there is no doubt the company is severely weakened and perhaps less attractive to investors if Altman is not involved.
Through the growing belief that D'Angelo was leading the removal of Altman, he has been silent. However, he did retweet a tweet from Replit CEO Amjad Masad that defended him against the accusations.
Have known Adam D'Angelo for many years and although I have not spoken to him in a while, the idea that he went crazy or is being vindictive over some feature overlap or any of the other rumors seems just wrong. It's best to withhold judgement until more information comes out.
— Amjad Masad (@amasad) November 21, 2023
Comments on Masad's tweet suggest people are starting to believe the theory. Many say that enough time has passed for the OpenAI board to give their reasons for removing Altman. Elon Musk weighed in and said, “True, but he does need to say something.”
Will Altman Return to OpenAI?
During the weekend, it became clear that OpenAI has an organization was mostly behind Altman. Employees were blindsided by his dismissal and made that vocal in a petition to have him reinstated. The board's choice of Emmett Shear, Twitch co-founder, as a potential CEO replacement has further fueled internal controversy. Reports indicate that OpenAI employees refused to attend an emergency meeting with Shear, expressing their dissatisfaction openly on the company's Slack channel.
Altman reportedly says he will only return to the company if the board members responsible for his sacking are removed. This seems to be straightforward evidence that he knows he has enemies and that this was a corporate attack from a board member with other interests. Again, D'Angelo seems the most likely. While OpenAI has not announced Altman's return, it still seems a possibility. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says he is open to any outcome, suggesting he will work with Altman whether that is alongside OpenAI, within Microsoft, or through a new venture.