This article was last updated on November 27, 2023
The video call has not yet ended, and Sam Altman can no longer access his computer. The CEO of OpenAI, the company behind text generator ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools, has just been summarily dismissed by the board. Altman is currently in Las Vegas for Formula 1. He hears the news in his hotel room, according to a reconstruction by The Wall Street Journal.
It turns out to be the start of 106 very turbulent hours. It rarely happens that a successful tech company first seems to implode from within in such a short time, only to eventually avert it. What happened? Report of a five-day crisis.
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Altman logs in for a video call on Friday, November 17 around noon (all times in this article are California time, 9 hours earlier than the Netherlands). He received the invitation from Ilya Sutskever the day before. He is a co-founder of OpenAI, a member of its board and a leading AI researcher.
OpenAI leadership has decided that they are going to fire Altman. It is Sutskever who tells him that. Altman is then told that a press release will be issued shortly afterwards. The vague wording used to legitimize Altman’s departure – “not always candid in communication” – will haunt the board in the days that follow.
There is already an interim CEO: technical director Mira Murati. Microsoft, OpenAI’s main partner, is completely surprised by the news. The top of the company hears it less than ten minutes before publication. In the days that follow, the software giant will become actively involved in the matter.
Almost immediately, a campaign begins to have Altman return to OpenAI. The Wall Street Journal describes his home as a war room on Saturdays with company employees. They use X as a platform to campaign: both Altman and other employees are active on it and thus reach journalists and investors who are also on X.
Investors, including Microsoft, are also putting pressure on the board to allow Altman to return. There is a moment of optimism that this will work. But there are also signals about doubts within the board and a deadline after which employees threaten to leave is not met.
The denouement should follow a day later, with Altman’s return. A message on X in which Altman shows that he is at the office that afternoon with a visitor’s pass and the message that it is the “first and last time” he wears it, is viewed millions of times on the medium.
Then everything changes. OpenAI’s board chooses to appoint a new temporary CEO. Murati, who has been in charge since Altman’s dismissal, is on his side. They point out the co-founder of Twitch.
A few hours later, the unexpected news arrives that Altman and other colleagues are transferring to Microsoft. The importance of the software giant in this story is very great. Not only has Microsoft invested billions of dollars in OpenAI; By deeply integrating the company’s technology into its own software, Microsoft has tied its future in AI to that of OpenAI. By tying Altman to Microsoft, CEO Satya Nadella wants to reassure investors.
In the meantime, things are brewing among employees. During the night from Sunday to Monday, work is being done on a letter addressed to the board. Their departure and Altman’s return are demanded, otherwise they will move to Microsoft. According to The New York Times this is “orchestrated” by the top of the company.
Almost all employees put their names under the letter. A signal of loyalty, but a stock sale was also at stake that would make employees a lot of money. Sutskever, who fired Altman on Friday, also puts his name to a letter and expresses regret for X. In retrospect, the letter seems to be the turning point.
The pressure on the board continues to increase. They have still not been able to clearly explain why Altman was fired. So say sources to The Wall Street Journal that the distrust of Altman was so great that they “felt it necessary to check almost everything he said”.
Things gain momentum a day later. That morning, negotiations begin again between Altman, the board and the temporary CEO. The conversations will last hours. Only around 10 p.m., which in the Netherlands it is already 7 a.m. on Wednesday, is there white smoke. Sam Altman returns.