The OpenAI saga continues.
This morning, Ilya Sutskever, the AI startup’s chief scientist and board director, published a mea culpa of sorts on X (formerly) Twitter. Sutskever was among those who pushed to abruptly remove former Y Combinator president Sam Altman as CEO of OpenAI and demote Greg Brockman, the company’s president, from his position as board chairman:
Why the about-face? Well, a couple of reasons come to mind:
- Nearly 500 of OpenAI’s roughly 770 employees — including, remarkably, Sutskever — have signed a letter saying that they might quit unless the startup’s board resigns and reappoints the ousted Altman. “The process through which [the board] terminated Altman and removed Brockman from the board has jeopardized all of this work and undermined our mission and company,” the letter reads. “Your conduct has made it clear you didn’t have the competence to oversee OpenAI.”
- Altman joined Microsoft to lead a research lab alongside Brockman, where the two will — in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s words — “set a new pace for innovation.” Nadella suggested that other OpenAI colleagues would be welcome to join and given the “resources needed for their success.” (Mr. Altman responded cryptically, writing on X, “the mission continues.”)
So Sutskever’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. Investors aren’t pleased with the outcome of the weekend’s debacle, putting OpenAI’s financing in jeopardy; Microsoft, once a close partner, is now positioning itself as a rival; and OpenAI employees are already leaving the ranks in protest.
But he only has himself to blame.
As recently as Sunday, Sutskever — along with the rest of OpenAI’s board — released a statement saying that the board “stood by its decision as the only path to advance and defend the mission of OpenAI” and criticized “Sam’s behavior and lack of transparency.” And — rather than capitulate and bow to Altman’s reported demands for returning as CEO, including restructuring OpenAI’s board and appointing new board members — the board hired a new interim CEO, former Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear.
What primarily precipitated Altman’s removal, according to reporting over the weekend, was clashes with Sutskever over differences in reducing AI’s potential harm to the public. Sutskever feared that OpenAI was commercializing its technologies too quickly at the expense of safety; he was said to be “infuriated” by a number of announcements at OpenAI’s first annual developer conference, DevDay, like custom GPTs that OpenAI has said may one day run autonomously.
Sutskever said during a company all-hands meeting on Friday that he felt removing Altman was “necessary” to protect OpenAI’s mission of “making AI beneficial to humanity,” However, he nor the board didn’t cite — and still haven’t cited — specific incidents involving Altman as the cause for removing him.
The board unceremoniously announced Altman’s firing Friday afternoon — opting not to give investors, or employees, any sort of heads up. By Friday evening — telegraphing his move to Microsoft, as it’d turn out — Altman was pitching a new AI startup to investors and planned to start the company with Brockman.