OpenAI Staff Threaten to Go to Microsoft If Board Doesn’t Quit

Action from around 600 OpenAI employees follows the recent ousting of CEO Sam Altman.

Bloomberg News

November 20, 2023

3 Min Read
OpenAI Staff Threaten to Go to Microsoft If Board Doesn’t Quit
Image: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Most of OpenAI’s employees have threatened to resign and follow ousted leader Sam Altman to Microsoft Corporation unless the current board resigns, leaving the future of the high-profile artificial intelligence startup increasingly uncertain.

A letter signed by about 600 of the artificial intelligence firm’s roughly 770 employees on Monday states that the signatories are “unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgment and care for our mission and employees.” 

After a tumultuous weekend that kicked off with Altman being abruptly fired by the OpenAI board on Friday, Microsoft, which owns almost half of the startup, brought on Altman and fellow OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman to lead a new in-house AI research team.

Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join,” employees wrote in the letter.

The shakeup will reshape the world of artificial intelligence. OpenAI – creator of the hugely popular ChatGPT app that propelled generative AI into the mainstream with Altman as its figurehead – has been at the center of the fast-moving technology. At the heart of this is whether AI should be a commercial opportunity or is a potentially dangerous technology that needs to be checked and scrutinized at every turn.

ltman’s ouster from the company he co-founded leaves OpenAI in turmoil. Thrive Capital had been expected to lead an offer for employee shares, a deal that would value OpenAI at $86 billion. As of this weekend, the firm had not yet wired the money and it told OpenAI that Altman’s departure would affect its actions.

Some investors were considering writing down the value of their OpenAI holdings to zero, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The potential move, which would make it more difficult for the company to raise additional funds, seemed designed to pressure the board to resign and bring Altman back.

Also in the balance was a second tender planned for early 2024 which would have given early stage investors a chance to get some liquidity on their shares, the people said. As recently as last week, blocks of OpenAI’s private shares were being offered that valued OpenAI in excess of $100 billion. That market dried up on Friday after news broke that Altman had been dismissed by the board, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of private transactions pending.

Ilya Sutskever, a board member who has been seen as instrumental in the board’s actions, in a tweet Monday said he regrets his participation in the perceived coup. 

The letter from employees is endorsed by OpenAI Chief Technology Officer (and briefly interim CEO) Mira Murati. It follows a spate of posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, by OpenAI staffers with the words “OpenAI is nothing without its people,” which seemed to signal solidarity with Altman and Brockman. 

Wired previously reported on the employee letter.

Altman’s firing came as a surprise to OpenAI’s workers, the letter said, as well as to Microsoft, the startup’s biggest shareholder and closest technology partner. A coalition of powerful investors, company leaders, and the world’s largest software company tried to get Altman reinstated over the weekend to no avail.

Late Sunday, the company’s four-person board instead appointed Emmett Shear, co-founder and former CEO of game-streaming website Twitch. Shear, who became OpenAI’s second interim chief executive in three days, won over the directors because of his past recognition of the threats that AI presents, a person familiar with the matter said, asking to remain anonymous to discuss the private deliberations. 

Shear is a well-regarded technologist and computer scientist who’s long advocated a more cautious approach to AI. He set out the priorities for his first 30 days in charge in a post on X, promising to reform the leadership team and hire an independent investigator to look into the circumstances of Altman’s termination. That was apparently not enough to assuage employees from issuing their board ultimatum. Shear didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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