WTF is going on at OpenAI? We have theories

In perhaps the most unexpected technology news of the year, Billionaire and AI evangelist Sam Altman ousted as CEO of OpenAI by the company’s board of directors after an apparent vote of no confidence. Its exact wording is contained in a statement released this afternoon: “Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the Board of Directors, which concluded that he was not always candid in his communications with the board of directors, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”

What’s going on in the hottest company in the world?! Here’s something totally speculative theories that have occurred to us and others on the web.

1. Did Altman bypass the board in a major transaction?

Based on the language used by the board and the way these giant tech companies operate, this is the current prevailing theory. “Not always straight” is a very diplomatic way of saying that Altman lied.

It’s possible that Altman — and potentially OpenAI Chairman Greg Brockman, who stepped down as chairman at the same time and then resigned — wanted to make a bold move that he knew the board would not appreciate it. It is not uncommon for these deals to be made quietly in smoke (or vape) filled rooms and then presented as a accomplished factbut if it was controversial enough and the board discovered these maneuvers, it could fuel an ouster.

But what kind of deal would be big and dangerous enough to justify the summary dismissal of the company’s CEO and famous face? The man was on stage two weeks ago, I just spoke to him! What could have happened since then?

Few people would be shocked if Microsoft, which is deeply entrenched in OpenAI as an investor and customer, was a factor here. Could Altman have worked with – or against – the boss of OpenAI in secret? If Altman wanted to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs by becoming independent, this could have activated the board’s fiduciary or other legal duty. On the other hand, if he negotiated another deal, such as a deeper, more exclusive acquisition or integration, that could also have caused the board to become irritated, either with the idea itself, or face its exclusion.

But if Microsoft was as shocked as we are, as one report says, it may not be the kind of high-stakes conspiracy that some seem to be hoping for. But one has to assume that Microsoft would say the same thing one way or another. Even though they had been working with Altman on some sort of secret plan, they can honestly say they were surprised by his firing. (And they “let us remain committed to our partnership. “)

2. Do they disagree on long-term strategy?

Despite being the hottest tech company in the world right now and everyone talking about ChatGPT, OpenAI isn’t exactly a strong company. He is putting money into the kitchen as quickly as possible by offering, by all accounts, an incredibly expensive product at rock-bottom prices.

This is all well and good for a year or two, but at some point this strategy turns from a growth hack into an existential liability. Could Altman and the board have had irreconcilable differences over where that point lies?

That doesn’t seem so likely. The company has deliberately pursued this approach in a very public manner, with confidence and for the long term. Altman and the board appear to be in sync on this, at least for now.

3. Do the numbers not add up?

On the other hand, could OpenAI even lose more money that Altman admitted or projected? It seems impossible, but the costs of running this operation are unprecedented, nor is the operation itself.

Or what if, and again this is just speculation, Altman was secretly pursuing an internal project, perhaps at significant cost, against the advice of the board and without the necessary security measures that would likely accompany such a research ? This seems a little wild, but firing your CEO this way is also a little wild.

Some sort of major mismatch within the finance department could be grounds for dismissal, but it’s hard to imagine what Altman could have hidden from the board. And CTO, that would be so overwhelming.

4. Is this a major security or privacy incident?

The idea that the company has encountered a major, perhaps widespread, security issue is reinforced by the fact that Microsoft reportedly suspended the use of ChatGPT internally a few days ago. OpenAI then stopped allowing new registrations. If there was a serious safety issue in its most important product and Altman downplayed it, that would obviously create distrust in the board.

There is also a risk of large-scale misuse due to the enormous amount of personal data that passes through OpenAI’s APIs and services.

The fact that CTO Mira Murati was just elevated to interim CEO in place of Altman goes against this theory. It seems unlikely that everything security-related would go through the CEO and not the CTO, or that the two would disagree to the point where one could be fired this way and the other swapped in to clean up the mess. As the board’s statement notes, Murati is, among other things, responsible for product and security. Any significant problems in this department would reflect on her as well as Altman.

5. Perhaps a difference in AI ethics or philosophy?

Altman is a proud techno-optimist and often speaks fondly of the possibilities of AGI, or artificial general intelligence, a theoretical software system that achieves human-like intelligence and versatility.

The board’s statement made clear that “OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: ensuring that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity” and that new leadership was needed. It’s possible that Sam’s zeal for AGI, even in the absence of a secret plan or deal, led to a major rift between him and the board.

It’s obvious to all that Altman has taken the company in a much more corporate direction since its origins, changing its legal status and aggressively pursuing enterprise and consumer applications. This doesn’t really sound like the “mission” the board wants to promote. Then again, that change didn’t happen today, and it certainly doesn’t seem like a plausible reason to abruptly fire the CEO and a few others on a beautiful fall Friday afternoon.

6. What about intellectual property and legal liability?

Altman told me at the company’s Dev Day earlier this month that the company didn’t want to incur copyright issues by using (as I requested) book datasets hacked. But a lot of research I’ve read contradicts this, as does almost every AI data scientist I talk to. It is extremely difficult to imagine that OpenAI built GPT-3 with the database of copyrighted books (as seems to be the case), but not GPT-4 or subsequent models. (I was going to write this next week, so thanks to the OpenAI board for eating my lunch.)

If you were a board member and faced growing accusations that your product was built on a data set that included thousands or millions of copyrighted works – and your CEO had systematically minimized potential liability – how would you feel? I would feel very hurt.

But again, if copyright liability was the reason, it seems unlikely that the board would promote the CTO. Presumably, OpenAi’s scientific director, Ilya Sutskever, would have also known about it, and he is still a member of the board of directors.

7. Did CTO Mira Murati launch a coup?

Probably not, she looks cool, and what CTO wants to be CEO anyway? Mira, answer my email!

8. Was it a “personal matter”?

When someone is rushed out, it is not uncommon for there to be unprofessional behavior in the workplace. Some CEOs ignore things like having children with direct reports, but not all.

Altman also has three siblings and his younger sister Annie has publicly accused him of abuse. We have no way of evaluating these allegations, which concern private matters.

However, our reading of the language used by the board in firing Altman is that it was not a legal or personal issue that prompted the action, but a professional or business issue.

We probably won’t know the whole truth about this for a long time, as the drama’s characters are likely to be subject to an NDA. According to various whispers and leaks, an all-hands meeting on the situation this afternoon produced no revelations beyond mundane assurances that the company is doing well and will soon have a new CEO. Expect to hear a lot of rumors before you hear the reality.

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