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On November 17, 2023, just 13 days before the much-awaited anniversary of ChatGPT, OpenAI sent shockwaves through the tech world by announcing that they had dismissed CEO Sam Altman.

Did Sam Altman receive the Steve Jobs treatment?

Read along to follow the event timeline and what it could mean for the tech giant.

The Art Of Firing, Poaching & Rehiring ft. Sam Altman, Microsoft And OpenAI

ChatGPT grew to a gigantic 1 million user base within the first five days. The generative AI application took just two months to reach a hundred million active users. In comparison, the viral TikTok application took nine months to achieve this feat.

Since the launch, ChatGPT developers haven’t failed to impress. They quickly rolled out a ChatGPT plugin with internet access. Moreover, there’s a ChatGPT mobile application too.

Amidst all these bright lights, an unprecedented series of shadows took center stage.

Nov 17th  - The Fire

The OpenAI board fired Sam Altman, and Greg Brockman was demoted. Subsequently, he resigned from OpenAI. OpenAI appointed Mira Murati as the interim CEO.

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Nov 18th - Fire Breeds Fire

A staggering 72% of OpenAI’s workforce considered quitting if the board didn’t bring back Sam Altman as CEO.

Nov 19th - Sam x Microsoft

Microsoft was quick to act. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, announced hiring Altman, Brockman, and other colleagues for an advanced AI research function.

Co-founder Ilya Sutskever confirms that Altman wouldn’t be back to OpenAI.

Nov 20th - Twitch, Anthropic, and Threats

Emmett Shear, former Twitch boss, is appointed interim OpenAI CEO.

The OpenAI board sought a merger opportunity with Anthropic's CEO - which was turned down.

Meanwhile, several OpenAI employees threatened to quit and join focus with Altman at Microsoft.

Sam Altman, however, seemed unfazed by the whole situation. His humor was on display as he tweeted, “First and last time I ever wear one of these,” with a photo of him wearing an OpenAI guest ID pass. 

Nov 21 - Investors' Reaction

OpenAI investors were concerned about a possible mass exodus within OpenAI following the shock dismissal of Sam Altman. Investors begin urging the OpenAI board to consider reversing their decision on Sam Altman. Some big-name investors, including Tiger Global, Sequoia Capital, and Thrive Capital, considered pursuing legal action against the board members to reinstate Altman and Brockman.

Nov 22nd - Redemption 

In an unprecedented turn of events, the OpenAI board chalked an "agreement in principle" for Sam Altman’s return. OpenAI also announced changes in the board, starring Adam D'Angelo, Larry Summers, and Bret Taylor.

Nadella backed Sam Altman’s return with a tweet, "We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board.”

It’s official: Sam Altman’s back for season 2 at OpenAI.

Diving Deeper Into The OpenAI Drama

OpenAI has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Sam Altman, only 38, pulled off something tech giants couldn't. OpenAI just sprinted past years of research by Google to launch ChatGPT.

ChatGPT raised billions of dollars and brought AI into the limelight.

Was all this not impressive for the board of directors?

Did the board just attempt a coup?

Kara Swisher posted a series of tweets on X, claiming a "misalignment" between the for-profit and non-profit representatives at OpenAI. Apparently, the profit-centric arm of the company under Altman was perceived as risky. On the other hand, the non-profit representatives prioritized safety and ethics over development speed (particularly the launch of newer and better AI models).

But why did OpenAI shift from a non-profit research laboratory to an AI cash cow? Developing effective language models required heavy computing infrastructure and you guessed it, tons of cash. Consequently, building a for-profit arm allowed investors to pour in money and keep the OpenAI mission on course.

Okay, so the board fired Altman because they felt he endangered OpenAI's true mission. However, did the board fail to consider that firing a beloved leader could affect their mission all the more?

What Does ChatGPT Think?

Of course, I asked ChatGPT for its reaction to the whole “coup.” I used the premium GPT 4.0 language model for this experiment, and the response was quite impressive.

I used the prompt, “You’re the CEO of an advanced AI firm. You made major strides in developing groundbreaking AI language models. One fine Friday, at 4 PM, you get fired from the company you founded. You receive a letter from the board citing a lack of candor in your communications. Do you feel there’s more to this story? Do a bit of speculation.”

chatgpt screeenshot

My Musings from The OpenAI Saga

I’ll be brutally honest. This see-saw of firing, poaching, and rehiring was addictive. I can't remember the last time I got so hooked on the news. 

Now that there’s some balance restored, here’s how I’m making sense of it.

Shifting from a non-profit to a profit-seeking business model invites a conflict of interest. Especially when you've got something groundbreaking like AI, there's always the ambiguity between stretching profits at the expense of safety and ethics.

Could the quest for releasing superior AI language models backfire? AI governance and safety are more critical than ever. 

I wonder if the OpenAI board feared Altman joining Microsoft. Did the committee feel that Altman - with his social media charisma and public appeal could develop something with the potential to surpass ChatGPT's prowess? 

Amidst this swinging pendulum of decisions, Sam Altman emerged as the hero. His witty X posts, supplemented by the backing of OpenAI employees, paint a very candid picture: one of an exiled official ready to return to the reins again.

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By Joshua Solomon

Joshua Solomon is a former product manager at a top telecom firm. He has amassed a great wealth of experience in roadmap creation, user story prioritization, cross-functional collaboration and other nuances of product management.