OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s ouster today from the San Francisco startup he co-founded quickly overtook the artificial intelligence community, where some dubbed it “the biggest news since the AI boom.”
No AI enthusiasts saw the departure coming. “I was having lunch with some friends, and everybody’s phone started ringing,” said one participant of an X Space discussion. “I was up in the elevator, and I heard, and I tripped and fell,” said another.
The implications of the country’s leading spokesperson for AI leaving the company he founded left many gobsmacked.
“Confidence is shaken in OpenAI, for sure,” said Shawn Wang, an AI founder and the host of one of the X Spaces. “You think you understand OpenAI, then this happens; you realize you don’t understand OpenAI. You think Sam picks the board. Now you realize he didn’t pick the board.”
Within hours, OpenAI President Greg Brockman, who was also the biggest contributor to GPT-4, announced on Twitter that, “based on today’s news, I quit.” Kara Swisher, the longtime tech journalist insider, predicted that there would be “a lot more major departures of top folks” at the company within hours.
Altman himself said very little, writing that “I loved my time at OpenAI,” and that he would “have more to say about what’s next later.”
That did not stop the speculation. Thousands of tech-savvy X users crammed into a couple of X Spaces dedicated to the news of Altman’s departure. Each discussion had over 2,000 participants at any given minute.
“Let’s crowdsource news,” said one of the co-hosts at “Generative AI Friday Recap: Sam Altman OUT at OpenAI,” an X Space that kicked off at 2 p.m. Even Elon Musk, a co-founder of OpenAI, attended at least one of the audio discussions. He appeared to be as ignorant of the true story as the rest of the participants. Many employees of OpenAI, too, logged on and were eager to figure out what happened with their former boss.
“He did not see it coming,” said a participant of “OpenAI Narrative violation. Emergency @latentspacepod,” an X Space that started within an hour of the news breaking.
Altman’s last public appearance as the CEO of OpenAI was at a fireside talk about art and artists Thursday night, at which he appeared “extremely relaxed.” Earlier yesterday, he made a high-profile appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference, a widely documented event addressing hundreds, if not thousands, of audience members.
The official announcement said only that Altman was “not consistently candid in his communications with the board,” and that the board “no longer has confidence” in his leadership. At the time, the board envisioned that Brockman would step down as chair but remain in his role as president of the company, indicating his departure later in the day was a surprise.
ChatGPT itself was unhelpful: “I don’t have real-time information, so I recommend checking the latest sources … ”
Those sources also proved unhelpful.
The X Spaces provided little news, and lots of shocked tech workers. “Quite an insane decision. For me, Sam is the company,” said one speaker. “He’s a Steve Jobs comparable,” said another during the 2 p.m. X Space discussion.
A “Why was Sam Altman fired?” poll was held on Manifold and widely shared; the top two guesses were “misalignment with nonprofit mission” and “consistently making business decisions without Board knowledge.”
Some said the departure could not be due to technical problems within the company, because otherwise the board would have held former Chief Technical Officer Mira Murati accountable. Instead, they promoted her to interim CEO.
While many techies admired the rocket-ship career trajectory of Murati and believed she would make a trustworthy leader, they were also skeptical. Maybe “it’s gonna be a lot more mundane than a lot of us expected,” one said. And, besides that, would she become the actual CEO?
The back-to-back departures of two of the company’s most important technical gurus left many wondering if this “is going to result in brain drain at OpenAI,” said a speaker during an X Space discussion. People even wondered whether the world would ever actually witness the launch of GPT-5, the much-anticipated large language model from the company.
Still, despite all the fog and uncertainty surrounding Altman’s departure, the AI community remained optimistic. “At the end of the day, the exciting thing about AI is what it enables,” said one speaker. “I think Sam did a good job … but building goes on.”
As to Altman, no one knew, Friday evening, exactly where he might be.