EletiofeMeet Emmett Shear, OpenAI’s ‘Highly Intelligent, Socially Awkward’ Interim...

Meet Emmett Shear, OpenAI’s ‘Highly Intelligent, Socially Awkward’ Interim CEO

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After a weekend of chaos at OpenAI, the company’s board of directors appointed former Twitch boss Emmett Shear interim CEO late Sunday. It was just the latest in a string of tumultuous changes at the AI company following Friday’s ouster of CEO Sam Altman, and it left many wondering what kind of CEO Shear would be, why the board had chosen him, and how much he would differ from Altman.

Shear was one of four cofounders of Justin.tv, launched in 2006. In June 2011, the site moved its gaming content to its new Twitch platform, which soon became the go-to place for video game streaming, with millions of monthly streamers. Amazon bought the company for $1 billion in 2014.

“He’s a typical Silicon Valley engineer type,” says one senior Twitch employee, who worked with Shear for a number of years and spoke on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak to the media. “Highly intelligent but socially awkward.” Shear was not the best communicator, the senior Twitch employee says, and he benefited from having a lot of experienced people around him. “He could be very blunt,” they add.

The former Twitch employee also portrayed Shear as an eccentric character who spoke from the heart, sometimes without thinking, they claim. The former employee recalls being in a presentation where Shear was, they claim, playing Hearthstone on his phone rather than paying attention to the discussion.

Since the OpenAI board announced the appointment of Shear, several of his old posts on X have been shared on social media. In one, he discussed the prevalence of rape fantasies; in another, he offers that while “Nazis were very evil,” there are scenarios worse than a Nazi takeover. Shear did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Shear’s appointment as OpenAI CEO caused confusion across Silicon Valley, largely because in the hours before the announcement there were reports indicating that Altman might be reappointed. There were also questions about what Shear’s track record at Twitch might indicate about his leadership at OpenAI. Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer who was appointed interim CEO on Friday, lasted just one weekend on the job. On Monday, her name was at the top of a list of more than 500 OpenAI employees calling on the board to resign.

“I’m skeptical. If Twitch serves as a precursor of what’s to come in AI, we can expect a lot of opaque policies and missed opportunities,” argues Joost van Dreunen, a New York University business professor and author of One Up, a book on the global games business. “Twitch has succeeded almost in spite of its management. The platform remains poorly integrated with parent owner Amazon, maintains lackluster communication with content creators and industry partners, and has prioritized monetization over investing in its ecosystem. Such tenure should raise concerns around how AI evolves from here.”

But the former Twitch employee says Shear does have some attributes that make him a good fit for the role. “The move to OpenAI makes a lot of sense to me,” they say. “For him, Twitch was a creator platform that was there for the good of individuals—it was less about profits, more about democratizing TV. He’s got quite an ethical core.”

Adam Smith, a cofounder of the email app Xobni, which like Twitch was part of the Y Combinator community, says, “Although I disagree with some of what Emmett has said in the past about AI risk, Emmett is very high on my list of people I’d like to work with at some point. He’s one of the smartest people I know, is intensely curious about the world, and genuinely a great person.”

One Y Combinator-affiliated person who worked with Shear, and who requested anonymity in order to speak with WIRED, described him as an “engineer’s engineer,” motivated by intellectual challenges. “He’s someone who could tech lead something really well,” they say. “That might be inspiring to some people.”

Things at Twitch have been rocky in recent years. There was widespread community discontent over changes to streamers’ revenue split last year, and in March 2023, Shear stepped down from his role, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his newborn child. A 2023 story in The Washington Post, published following Shear’s exit, quoted former Twitch employees arguing that the company had entered a slump, criticizing its management and lack of direction.

“By the time he left Twitch he had certainly become pretty unpopular with the Twitch crowd,” says Mark Johnson, senior lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney. “I think a lot of people interested in Twitch would frame him as having been in more recent years not really all that responsive to creator and community needs, a bit disconnected.”

Paresh Dave and Vittoria Elliott contributed reporting to this story.

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