Almost the entire staff of OpenAI has now signed a letter threatening to leave and join a new venture led by ousted CEO, Sam Altman. Some 738 out of its around 770 employees, about 95 percent of the company, are now listed on the letter released early this morning.
The letter calls for Altman and his fellow OpenAI cofounder and close associate Greg Brockman to be reinstated, for the board that fired Altman and removed Brockman from his position as chair to resign, and for new board members to be appointed.
Altman was fired from his position as CEO of OpenAI on Friday. Brockman was removed from his position as chair and quit the company hours later in protest over Altman’s removal. The letter released today states that the board had failed to provide written evidence to justify its decision to remove them from their positions.
Over a dramatic weekend that captivated the tech industry, Altman seemed close to regaining his position and visited the company’s headquarters to discuss the possibility. After negotiations broke down, Microsoft announced that Altman and Brockman would join a new subsidiary to work on AI. OpenAI replaced interim CEO Mira Murati, formerly its CTO, with a new interim, Emmett Shear, formerly leader of Amazon’s Twitch streaming service.
Vinod Khosla, whose venture firm is a major backer of OpenAI, on Monday called for Shear to resign and questioned the legality of the board’s action. Fellow OpenAI investor Joshua Kushner of Thrive Capital said he was supporting the employee-led campaign to reinstate Altman. “Founders deserve to run their own businesses,” he wrote in a post on X. Thrive declined to comment, and Khosla did not respond to requests for comment.
When first released this morning the letter from OpenAI staff was signed by a little under 500 people including, remarkably, Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and the board member who told Altman he was fired on Friday. “More are signing as they wake up,” a company employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said today after the letter was released. The employee says there has been no further explanation of Altman’s ouster, and little communication from the board.
Some staff employed on work visas tied to OpenAI that make switching companies difficult posted on X today to say they signed the letter anyway. “I’m on a research visa too that I will lose if I resign,” Boris Power, the company’s head of applied research, wrote. “These are details—onwards with the mission! 🚀”
The Verge reported today that Altman was still open to returning to OpenAI if the current directors stepped aside.
OpenAI employees say they were blindsided by the board’s decision to remove Altman. The board said in its announcement on Friday that it had “concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.” OpenAI’s unusual structure places the board of the project’s original nonprofit entity in control of a for-profit company created in 2019 to lead OpenAI’s work on AI and draw outside investment.
The implosion of OpenAI, a high-flying company whose ChatGPT rapidly became one of the most remarkable and controversial technologies in tech history, has stunned and perplexed the tech industry.
OpenAI became the most influential company in the tech industry after releasing ChatGPT, a chatbot that demonstrated stunning conversational and problem solving abilities, just under a year ago. Altman surfed this wave of success with aplomb, meeting world leaders eager to discuss AI and its potential, and negotiating a deal that would see Microsoft invest a further $10 billion in OpenAI.
At the company’s first developer conference this month, Altman had announced the creation of an app store for customized chatbots. He was also seeking billions in funding to launch a chipmaking effort that would challenge Nvidia’s dominance, according to a source speaking on the condition of anonymity about Altman’s intentions in recent months.
That stratospheric commercial success sat awkwardly with the risk-averse nature of OpenAI’s founding in 2015 as a nonprofit intended to be a counterweight to the AI labs of major tech companies such as Google.
The fiduciary duty of the nonprofit board overseeing the for-profit company that has housed OpenAI’s AI development since 2019 remained the project’s original mission: “To ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” The board’s claim that Altman had been “hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities” suggests it saw something in his behavior at odds with that mission.
Updated 11-20-2023, 7:55 pm EST: This article was updated with reporting on OpenAI investors.
Additional reporting by Paresh Dave.