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The Chaos at OpenAI, Explained

If they had been the plot of a science fiction movie, or an episode of “Succession,” the events at OpenAI last weekend would have seemed a little over-the-top.

A secret board coup! Fears of killer A.I.! A star C.E.O., betrayed by his chief scientist! A middle-of-the-night staff revolt that threatens to change the balance of global tech power!

If you haven’t been paying attention to all the twists and turns in the saga, that’s OK. It’s been a confusing ride, with lots of complex jargon and hard-to-follow details.

But it’s an important story, even if you’re not particularly interested in A.I. If you’ve ever used ChatGPT or drawn a picture with DALL-E 3, or if you care about whether powerful A.I. systems might someday threaten human survival, all of that is wrapped up in the drama at OpenAI, the country’s most prominent maker of artificial intelligence.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why did this happen?

OpenAI’s board fired its chief executive, Sam Altman, in a surprise on Friday. The board’s explanation — that Altman had not been completely candid with them — was vague and opaque.

We still don’t know exactly what happened between Altman and the board. But OpenAI’s unusual governance structure — it is run by a nonprofit board that controls a for-profit subsidiary and can vote to replace its leaders — allowed the board to fire Altman without explaining itself.

What was the coup about?

The coup was led by Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, who had butted heads with Altman. Sutskever wants the company to prioritize safety and was worried that Altman was more focused on growth.

Sutskever is among a faction of A.I. experts who are fearful that A.I. may soon surpass human abilities and become a threat to our survival. Several of OpenAI’s board members have ties to effective altruism, a philosophical movement that has made preventing these threats a top priority. Altman has concerns about A.I. risks, too. But he has also expressed optimism that A.I. will be good for society, and a desire to make progress more quickly. That may have put him at odds with the safety-minded board members, whose job is to see that powerful A.I. is developed responsibly.

Ilya SutskeverCredit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

What’s happened since the coup?

Over the weekend, it looked as though Altman might return to OpenAI, under the condition that major changes were made to the board. That didn’t happen. Instead, late on Sunday night, the board affirmed its decision, writing in a memo to employees that Altman’s “behavior and lack of transparency in his interactions with the board undermined the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company in the manner it was mandated to do.”

The board then appointed Emmett Shear — the former chief executive of Twitch, a livestreaming company — to be OpenAI’s second interim C.E.O. in just a few days. (Mira Murati, the chief technology officer, had been given the job, only to lose it after signaling her support for Altman.)

In response, Microsoft — OpenAI’s biggest investor and a major strategic partner — offered to give Altman and his top lieutenant, Greg Brockman, a job running a new A.I. lab. Nearly all of OpenAI’s roughly 770 employees signed a letter threatening to quit and go work for the new Microsoft team, unless the start-up’s board resigned and brought back Altman and Brockman.

In another surprise twist, Sutskever then had second thoughts. He wrote in a post on X on Monday that he deeply regretted having taken part in the ouster and that he had “never intended to harm OpenAI.” He also signed the letter pledging to follow Altman and Brockman to Microsoft unless the board reversed its decision.

That sounds messy! But why does this matter to the rest of us?

Corporate infighting is not new. But what makes the OpenAI story stand out is the stakes. OpenAI is no ordinary company. It built ChatGPT, one of the fastest-growing tech products of all time, and it employs many of the top A.I. researchers.

The company is also unusually ambitious and saw its role as building a digital superintelligence that would eventually become more powerful than humans. In addition, Altman was a well-liked leader and a figurehead for the A.I. industry, making the board’s decision to oust him even more of a mystery.

In a larger sense, what’s happening at OpenAI is a proxy for one of the biggest fights in the global economy today: how to control increasingly powerful A.I. tools, and whether large companies can be trusted to develop them responsibly.

More on OpenAI

  • On the “Hard Fork” podcast, Kevin interviewed Altman about the future of A.I. shortly before he was fired.

  • The saga over the leadership of OpenAI has deepened the parallels between Altman and Steve Jobs, who quit Apple in 1985 after its board marginalized him.

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