As I was finalising this week’s newsletter, the story broke that OpenAI had sacked Sam Altman. Say what?!
This was followed a few hours later by the departure of fellow co-founder and current Chairman, Greg Brockman. Nobody saw this coming and it caught tech journalists just as flat footed as the UK press earlier this week with the Bobby Ewing-like return of David Cameron to British politics.
In a short blog from OpenAI, they said that after a board review, they had found Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications” with the directors and they no longer had confidence in his ability to lead the company. Here’s an excerpt:
“OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity. The board remains fully committed to serving this mission. We are grateful for Sam’s many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI. At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward. As the leader of the company’s research, product, and safety functions, Mira is exceptionally qualified to step into the role of interim CEO. We have the utmost confidence in her ability to lead OpenAI during this transition period.”
It’s unclear what all this actually means and why the board didn’t think Altman was the right man to lead OpenAI on it’s vision. But you won’t be surprised that it’s kicked off a flurry of speculation and rumours as to why.
What’s crystal clear is that both Altman and Brockman were blindsided by the news. They have subsequently expressed shock and sadness without answering the question of “why?” Brockman went onto Twitter to explain how it happened. And Altman tweeted a short good-to-have-known-you message. But nether have offered any explanations, yet!
It’s also clear that Microsoft, OpenAI’s biggest partner, didn’t know until minutes before Altman was told. Remember it was only a week ago that Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella was sharing a stage with Altman at the OpenAI developer’s day!
Here’s The Thing ➜ Sam Altman can take a huge slice of credit for creating this company now valued at $90 billion based on about $2 billion of annual revenues!
It’s the leader in generative AI and the most widely used. Just three days ago, OpenAI stopped taking new ChatGPT Plus subscriptions because of the massive surge in demand following last week’s GPT announcement. OpenAI has set the pace in the AI gold rush and are leading the pack.
Altman is seen as one of the good guys in tech. He has a reputation as a good boss, is very well connected in Silicon Valley and considered super smart. In 2009, Altman was named alongside Steve Jobs as one of “the five most influential startup founders of the previous 30 years” in an article called “Five Founders” by Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator.
It is Altman’s reputation, connections and likability that attracts some of the best talent in AI to work for him, another notable factor in OpenAI’s success. Whether OpenAI has enough kudos to continue to be the home of the best talent will now be tested, especially since you can be sure that Altman will pop up somewhere else pretty soon.
So, it remains a mystery. Maybe this is down to the complicated structure of OpenAI, which has a non-profit board running a for-profit company (that’s not normal.) Or maybe it’s connected with Altman’s involvement in external projects, like WorldCoin. Or some conflict of interest, as yet to be undisclosed. Or personal scandal, vendetta or just a bad day at the office.
Who knows? For now the exact reasons for the loss of confidence in Altman remains unclear and baffling. But what is absolutely crystal clear is that the board have just wiped a huge chunk of the $90 billion valuation off OpenAI.
In brand terms, Altman WAS OpenAI, just as Jobs WAS Apple. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. For OpenAI to sack Altman exactly 1 year after the launch of ChatGPT can only be matched by imagining Apple sacking Steve Jobs in 2008, 1 year after the launch of the iPhone.
More to come…
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🎙️ Big Tech Little Tech Podcast #38 — Technology In Japan
In the latest episode of Big Tech Little Tech, Shaun Weston and I discuss Shaun’s recent recce to Japan and the extent to which technology is integrated in every day life. It turned out to be a fun and enlightening episode about how technologically advanced Japan actually is, or isn’t!
We discuss the concept of Japan’s Society 5.0 and how it could shape the future of the nature with an ageing population problem. We cover a range of topics, from technological expectations and societal values to specific experiences with Japanese toilets and the bullet train, aka the Shinkansen.
To see the full length, no-holds barred, video of the show, head over to our Patreon page.
About The Author
Rick Huckstep has worked in technology his entire career, as a corporate sales leader, investor in tech startups and keynote speaker. From his home in Spain, Rick is thought leader in artificial intelligence, emerging technologies and the future of work.
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