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Sam Altman joins Microsoft as Nadella pounces - and OpenAI appoints former Twitch CEO

"We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to give founders and innovators space to build independent identities and cultures within Microsoft"

Sam Altman joins Microsoft Satya Nadella Twitch CEO

Updated: 15:32. This story is evolving at a ludicrous pace. As we update, the vast majority of OpenAI staff have threatened to resign or join Microsoft unless Altman and Brockman are brought back and the board itself resigns. The board member most publicly associated with Altman's dismissal, Ilya Sutskever has said "I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions" and "I will do everything I can to reunite the company." This is soap opera stuff and we're making an executive decision to stop covering it for now until the dust settles and things are a little clearer for customers.

Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who was fired abruptly on Friday, will be joining Microsoft, Satya Nadella said early Monday, after OpenAI’s board appointed former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear as its new chief exec.

Altman, former OpenAI President Greg Brockman and an unknown number of colleagues will be joining Microsoft to lead a new and generously resourced “advanced AI” research team, said Nadella.

The move comes after major investor Microsoft has insisted it was blindsided by Altman’s dramatic removal on Friday November 17. 

The move is a coup for Microsoft, a major investor in OpenAI, which appears to have been able to mop up its disgruntled leadership talent in a single weekend’s negotiations after Friday’s Silicon Valley ouster, which resulted in co-founder Brockman and several senior staff resigning.

It comes after former Google CEO Eric Schmidt had publicly backed Altman and Google executives will be ruing their inability to steal a march on Microsoft, with which it is locked in a fierce battle for AI talent.

Microsoft CEO Nadella said early Monday: “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 Shear and OAI's new leadership team and working with them,” he said on X.

“And we’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.”

Sam Altman to Microsoft

“The mission continues” said Altman on X, with Nadella adding, past midnight on Monday morning Seattle time: “I’m super excited to have you join as CEO of this new group, Sam, setting a new pace for innovation.

"We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to give founders and innovators space to build independent identities and cultures within Microsoft, including GitHub, Mojang Studios, and LinkedIn, and I’m looking forward to having you do the same.”

Brockman posted shortly thereafter "we are going to build something new & it will be incredible. Initial leadership (more soon):@merettm [Jakub Pachocki] @sidorszymon [Szymon Sidor] @aleks_madry [Aleksander Madry] @sama [Sam Altman] @gdb [Brockman]. The mission continues."

OpenAI had said Altman was “not consistently candid” with the board, “hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities” adding on Friday that it had lost confidence “in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

Neither the company nor Altman has specified what this alleged lack of candour entailed, although several reports have suggested that Altman, who does not hold shares directly in OpenAI, was exploring forming a new company and Bloomberg reports that he had approached investors about raising "billions" to create a new AI chip company to take on NVIDIA.

OpenAI’s co-founder Greg Brockman quit after Altman was dismissed.

“Altman attached several conditions to his return, including changes to the way OpenAI is governed, the removal of the board and a statement absolving him of wrongdoing” Bloomberg reported, citing “people with knowledge of the matter” and that it was “ultimately unwilling to give in to the demands” describing Shear’s appointment as a “stinging rebuke.” 

OpenAI’s unusual corporate structure has drawn much attention in the wake of Altman’s dismissal, with the bylaws its co-founders established – in a 2019 restructuring that created a for-profit arm at the non-profit – giving what Wired describes as “a handful of people with no financial stake in the company the power to upend the project on a whim.”

It has also revealed a major schism at the heart of the company, between the “go-faster” group that includes Altman and Brockman and a board concerned at the existential risk posed by improved AI capabilities.

Some members of the existing board are strongly linked with the “effective altruism” movement; a quasi-philosophical group which has attracted the mega-rich and which highlights the risks posed by AI – the “movement” includes those who believe in “longtermism”; a controversial position within effective altruism that focuses more on solving threats to humanity’s long-term future than its present problems. 

(The existential risks that longtermists rank as most probable are AI unaligned with liberal values and deadly engineered pathogens.)

Incoming OpenAI CEO Shear has previous explicitly stated he is in favour of slowing down AI research, posting on X in September that "we probably shouldn't be barreling ahead at max speed... If we’re at a speed of 10 right now, a pause is reducing to 0. I think we should aim for a 1-2 instead."

Early Monday he posted: "I have a three point plan for the next 30 days:

"Hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report.
"Continue to speak to as many of our employees, partners, investors, and customers as possible, take good notes, and share the key takeaways.
"Reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force to drive results for our customers."

Shear added: "Before I took the job, I checked on the reasoning behind the change. The board did *not* remove Sam over any specific disagreement on safety, their reasoning was completely different from that. I'm not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models."

OpenAI’s CEO was fired two days after he said the company would pause accepting new users for its paid ChatGPT Plus service due to overwhelming demand: “The surge in usage post devday [an event the company put on last week during which it announced new features] has exceeded our capacity and we want to make sure everyone has a great experience,” Altman wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Earlier the company had blamed malicious activity on intermittent outages, rather than organic capacity issues, saying in a status update “we are dealing with periodic outages due to an abnormal traffic pattern reflective of a DDoS attack. We are continuing work to mitigate this.”

It remains unclear for now how effective OpenAI will prove as a commercial entity in the future with a board and executive explicitly focused on avoiding risk from advancing AI, talent leaving for Microsoft and its biggest financial backer, Redmond, having mopped up member of its team.

Critical IP of course remains with the pioneering OpenAI, but the situation does appear to open up an opportunity for competitors; enterprises, meanwhile, who have built applications around the OpenAI API may be concerned about that bet and will no doubt be watching closely.

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