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Carefree on the verge of being kicked out: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (left) listens to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during an AI security summit in the UK on November 2


The completely surprising dismissal of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (38) on Friday is developing into an unprecedented and at the same time bizarre power struggle in one of the highest-valued start-ups worldwide. After the board of directors unequivocally withdrew its confidence in the co-founder and CEO and fired him with immediate effect, important investors are apparently trying to put Altman back in office, media outlets such as the Financial Times, The Verge and CNBC report.

Among others, major investor Microsoft, which has pledged more than $11 billion to OpenAI so far, as well as venture capitalists Tiger Global, Thrive Capital and Sequoia Capital are said to be putting pressure on OpenAI's board of directors to persuade the just-fired Altman to return. Altman is reportedly already in talks with executives. It is even conceivable that the members of the board of directors will resign to allow Altman and the chairman and co-founder Greg Brockman (35), who was also ousted on Friday, to return.

Chaos reigns at OpenAI, the globally acclaimed artificial intelligence pioneer that is making a splash with ChatGPT and Dalle-E image software. Investors, employees and the two ousted co-founders were completely surprised by the coup of the board of directors on Friday. According to the plan, the previous head of technology Mira Murati (34) should stabilize OpenAI on an interim basis. But apparently another solution is now being worked on in the background. This would be tantamount to a "spectacular counter-coup", writes the Financial Times.

Microsoft and other investors declined to comment, according to the Financial Times. OpenAI also did not comment on the speculation.

Is Altman already planning a competitor to OpenAI?

The investors' move reportedly underscores the deep concern that Altman and Brockman, the company's two figureheads, could build a new competitor to OpenAI while poaching the startup's most talented minds for it. Altman had proven at OpenAI that he is a master of raising money and, thanks to his charisma, is also able to attract AI talent to himself in the highly competitive market.

Vinod Khosla (68), founder of early OpenAI investor Khosla Ventures, said they would support Altman "whatever he does next."

Altman's dismissal is said to have been preceded by a struggle for direction and power with board members, who apparently feel more committed to the charter and the founding idea of OpenAI than Altman: the creation of artificial intelligence that benefits the general public – and not primarily investors. With this claim, Altman and other Silicon Valley giants finally launched OpenAI in 2015. Nevertheless, Altman rebuilt the start-up, founded a profit-oriented company under the non-profit umbrella and, among other things, brought Microsoft on board as a billionaire investor. However, the board of directors of the non-profit entity has remained the most powerful authority, which can also dismiss the CEO in case of doubt.

The panel includes chief scientist and co-founder Ilya Sutskever, Adam D'Angelo (CEO of the Internet directory enquiry service Quora), as well as technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, strategy director at the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology in the US. As of Friday, Altman and Brockman were also part of the panel. Altman and the independent directors are, most unusually, not involved in OpenAI.

Battle over how to deal with AI

According to what is known so far, the conflict has recently escalated due to differing views on how quickly OpenAI's AI software develops, how it should be marketed, and how to minimize its risks. There is also said to have been disagreement about the collection of new investor money for additional projects. Sutskever in particular is said to have been instrumental in pushing for Altman's dismissal.

OpenAI has become the hottest startup in the world since launching its ChatGPT chatbot last year, and it has also sparked a rush to the artificial intelligence market among investors. The company had reportedly been in talks to sell employee shares just last month. According to the FT, the deal is now on hold, it would have estimated the value of OpenAI at around 86 billion US dollars.

While top representatives of the tech industry such as ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt (68) even call Altman a "hero" whose work would benefit billions of people in the future, well-known critics, on the other hand, see artificial intelligence as a danger.

There have also been repeated warnings internally at OpenAI, not only chief scientist Sutskever is said to have sometimes been too fast at the pace Altman was struck. Chief Technology Officer Murati, who has now been installed as interim CEO, has also repeatedly publicly pointed out the dangers. Even Altman did not hide the risks associated with the technology and called for clear rules, for example in hearings before US politicians in Washington or during visits to European capitals.

As recently as this spring, prominent critics from the tech world had called for a longer pause in training new AI systems that outperform newer versions of ChatGPT. "Powerful AI systems should only be developed when we are sure that their impact will be positive and their risks will be manageable," the letter signed by Elon Musk (52) said, among others. Altman did not join the call.

The OpenAI founder later explained in an interview with SPIEGEL: "We're talking about new, powerful tools here. They can be used to create a lot of good. And yes, they can also reinforce negative things. I'm sure that in the end, the positives outweigh the negatives. The vast majority of people will use AI productively."

Reuters, dpa