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Sam Altman to lead Microsoft AI team; OpenAI names Emmett Shear interim CEO

Sam Altman, the face of the artificial intelligence revolution, is heading to Microsoft to lead a new advanced artificial intelligence research team, the company said early Monday, hours after talks collapsed over Altman’s potential return to OpenAI, which ousted him on Friday.

In the latest twist in one of the most tumultuous board room dramas in Silicon Valley history, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella tweeted that the company had hired both Altman and Greg Brockman, the former president of OpenAI who quit in solidarity with Altman.

“We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success,” Nadella said in the post. Microsoft is a major investor in OpenAI.

Meanwhile, Emmett Shear, the co-founder of Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform acquired by Amazon in 2014, tweeted Monday that he will become OpenAI’s interim CEO, replacing Mira Murati, who was named to that role Friday in a management reshuffle.

“I took this job because I believe that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence,” Shear said in a post on X. “When the board shared the situation and asked me to take the role, I did not make the decision lightly. Ultimately I felt that I had a duty to help if I could.”

He added that the board did not remove Altman “over any specific disagreement on safety, their reasoning was completely different from that.” Shear said OpenAI would hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)

The developments capped a chaotic weekend, during which OpenAI investors and employees said they had been blindsided by the board’s move to fire Altman on Friday and mounted a campaign to get him reinstated. In a vague statement explaining its rationale for the firing, OpenAI said only that Altman wasn’t always “candid” in his communications with the board.

According to a person familiar with the board’s proceedings, its members did not take issue with the company’s products or services, nor was its decision to fire Altman prompted by concern that he was moving too fast to commercialize AI, instead of prioritizing AI safety. Instead, the board found it a challenge to oppose the talented, powerful and well-liked chief executive, this person said, and believed that pressure on him would only increase as the company grew closer to its goal of building “artificial general intelligence,” defined as AI systems that are generally smarter than humans.

On Sunday, Altman went into the OpenAI office to discuss his return to the company, posting on X, formerly Twitter, a photo of himself with a visitor badge and writing “first and last time i ever wear one of these.” Altman, the board and investors including Microsoft and venture capital firms discussed bringing him back and replacing the board with new directors, floating names like Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and former Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But by late Sunday, those talks had broken down, and the board announced Shear’s appointment as interim CEO to employees. A spokesperson for OpenAI did not return a request for comment. Shear and Altman did not return requests for comment. Nadella said ion X: “We look forward to getting to know Emmett Shear and OAI’s new leadership team and working with them.”

“It is nuts for sure,” one of the people said, describing the latest twist. “So much value and mission destroyed overnight.”

Altman’s ouster highlights a major rift in the artificial intelligence world, where some people believe that the tech should be rushed forward with minimal government regulation to make money and provide helpful tools to people, while others are concerned that AI could quickly surpass human intelligence and turn on its creators. OpenAI was initially founded as a nonprofit to provide a counter to Big Tech’s power in AI, but as the company took on more investment money and began developing consumer products, some in the industry said it had abandoned its mission.

“Honestly, it is heartbreaking to see such a world-changing organization be ripped apart,” said Sarah Guo, a venture capitalist and founder of Conviction. “The previous standard-bearer for the AI revolution, the unassailable giant in the room is vulnerable, and new leadership will have their work cut out for them to build customer and employee trust. This completely changes the strategic landscape and emboldens every other player.”

In an interview with tech podcaster Logan Bartlett posted in June, Shear said that he was generally an optimist about technology, and that regulators should be careful not to stymie innovation. At the same time, he called the prospect that supersmart AI could take over the world and eradicate human civilization a real risk. In the podcast, Shear said he believed the chances of such an event happening were between 2 percent and 50 percent.

“It’s like a universe destroying bomb,” Shear said of a hypothetical hyper-intelligent AI that exceeds human control. “It’s bad in a way that makes global warming not a problem.”

Shear stepped down as Twitch’s CEO in February and was named a part-time adviser to companies at Y Combinator, an influential San Francisco start-up incubator that Altman headed from 2014 to 2019.

In recent days, Altman’s ouster and the boardroom drama at OpenAI have transfixed the tech industry. Under Altman’s leadership, the company transitioned from a nonprofit research lab into a moneymaking corporation that has become one of the most powerful players in artificial intelligence. Since the launch of its chatbot, ChatGPT, about a year ago, the company has ignited an AI arms race with Big Tech giants like Google and Microsoft.

After Altman’s firing, a number of OpenAI executives and employees either quit or signaled their intention to leave in solidarity. Brockman, one of OpenAI’s founders, was among the first, saying he and Altman were shocked at the board’s move. On Saturday, OpenAI executives told workers that they also had been surprised by the news and assured them that the ouster had nothing to do with financial or privacy irregularities. By Saturday afternoon, investors and employees who supported Altman launched a campaign to get him reinstated.

Many employees posted their support for Altman on X. Prominent venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, an early investor in OpenAI, said he wanted Altman back as CEO but would also “back him in whatever he does next.”

As news of the circumstances around Altman’s ouster began to emerge, anger grew in Silicon Valley circles at OpenAI’s board.

“What happened at OpenAI today is a board coup that we have not seen the likes of since 1985 when the then-Apple board pushed out Steve Jobs,” Ron Conway, a longtime venture capitalist, tweeted Friday. “It is shocking, it is irresponsible, and it does not do right by Sam and Greg or all the builders in OpenAI.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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