News & Analysis

The Altman-Nadella Tango at OpenAI

Fear of competition and lure of money can make intelligent people do stupid things, right?

“And now, we all get some sleep.” This comment from Helen Toner, a  board member of OpenAI who was part of the move to oust Sam Altman from his company, came after he was reinstated as CEO of his company. Of course, the media would agree too, having tracked five days of a power struggle that would put any web series on any OTT platform to shame. 

The company, which pivoted itself around ChatGPT and the power of generative AI, saw three CEOs in as many days after an ugly ouster by the Board. What follows thereafter is the stuff of which television soaps are created. Altman is hired by Microsoft to help a rival venture. The threat ostensibly forces the Board to rethink. And Altman gets his company back. 

The problem with this good versus evil script though is that we cannot ever agree as to who falls in which category. Could the board have blindsided both Altman and their key investor Microsoft by summarily dismissing him? Was Altman right in colluding with Satya Nadella to make the job offer official? Did the board capitulate to the money Microsoft has promised to pump in?

(Also read: Microsoft gets Altman, but what about the $10Bn?)

Try and read between the lines now

The two quotes from social media posts from Altman and Nadella says more than it actually does. Here goes: 

Sam Altman: I love OpenAIi, and everything I’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together. When I decided to join MSFT on Sunday evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team. With the new board and with Satya’s support, I’m looking forward to returning to OpenAI, and building on our strong partnership with Microsoft. 

Satya Nadella: We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board. We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance. Sam, Greg, and I have talked and agreed they have a key role to play along with the OAI leadership team in ensuring OAI continues to thrive and build on its mission. We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners.

An open and shut case of a power struggle?

For all practical purposes it’s been an open and shut case (no pun intended) that suggests quite clearly that whoever has the moolah calls the shots. 

In a statement, OpenAI said, late Tuesday that it has an “agreement in principle” for Altman to return alongside a new board composed of Bret Taylor, Larry Summers, and Adam D’Angelo. D’Angelo is a holdover from the previous board that initially fired Altman on Friday. He remains on this new board to give the previous board some representation. 

Small mercies! But the moot point is that this initial board could well be in place to vet and appoint a larger unit of up to nine people that will reset governance at OpenAI. And no surprises for guessing that Microsoft could get a seat on this board as will Altman. Because in Nadella’s words, the company does not want any more surprises. 

(Also read From OpenAI to CloseAI – The Sam Altman Saga

Now it’s time to sweep things under the rug

Just so that the five-day saga can be dismissed as just that, the two sides also seem to have agreed to a probe into the sequence of events that saw Altman go out, get hired by Microsoft before claiming his rightful place back at OpenAI. Along with him comes his co-founder Greg Brockman and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a traditionalist. 

While the worst of it all may get pushed under the rug once the investigation is carried out, presumably by an independent law firm, there are still questions around whether the human power struggle around what is essentially around the “my way or the highway” mindset is actually over or not. 

Altman’s firing led to Brockman quitting his position as President at OpenAI, which was followed by an employee revolt that threatened to defect to Microsoft. Media reports suggest that the board members who were opposed to Altman didn’t divulge the exact reasons for their actions, even under threat of lawsuits from investors and the employee walkouts. 

The question remains if the battle of personalities is over?

However, one of the board members Ilya Sutskever reportedly flipped over to the other side after an SOS from Brockman’s wife, who incidentally got married under the supervision of Sutskever at the OpenAI headquarters. The techie who serves as the company’s chief scientist too, left the other board members vulnerable to pressure. 

There were also reports that the board, which had first appointed Mira Murati as interim CEO, announced a replacement within a day in Emmett Shear because the former threatened to resign unless she was given evidence of Altman’s wrongdoing that led to his firing. The irony is that we still do not know what caused the ouster and the reinstatement, and probably never will. 

As for the original point about the risks of GenAI and the need to cap its development, well, only time will tell whether Altman has altered his views or his alliance with Microsoft would only strengthen them further.