OpenAI’s turmoil isn’t limited to Sam Altman

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The battle over the most important technology in decades is growing fast and furious. OpenAI’s incredible shakeup — with former CEO Sam Altman caught in the middle — could have broad implications for who controls the future of artificial intelligence.

A year ago, OpenAI was an obscure startup that launched technology so powerful that it almost immediately prompted comparisons to Prometheus bringing down fire from the realm of the gods. ChatGPT – the impressively human-sounding artificial intelligence tool – and the nonprofit that built it, have quickly become synonymous with the emerging field of generative artificial intelligence.

Now, just 12 months later, a disastrous boardroom shake-up has upset the balance of power in the industry. As OpenAI faces a potential mutiny, it’s Microsoft – the 50-year-old giant best known for clunky office work software like Excel and PowerPoint – that suddenly finds itself at the forefront of technological innovation. most important in decades.

Microsoft announced that Altman and several other key members of OpenAI would join the company to help with its artificial intelligence innovation. Its plan to bring the ChatGPT braintrust under its own brand could accelerate the expansion of AI-based tools, potentially realizing the worst fears of OpenAI’s founders who worried that dangerous technology in the wrong hands would also be deployed. quickly in order to make a profit.

In brief: OpenAI’s board abruptly fired its CEO and co-founder, Sam Altman, on Friday, sparking a chaotic weekend in which the board unsuccessfully tried to overturn the decision. Within 48 hours, Microsoft announced that it had tapped Altman to lead a new internal AI group.

Anger within OpenAI spread on Monday, with more than 500 of its employees threatening to resign unless they bring back Altman and the current board of directors resigns.

News of the defection of Altman and another OpenAI co-founder, Greg Brockman, pushed Microsoft shares to a record high on Monday.

On Monday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admitted in interviews with CNBC and CNN contributor Kara Swisher on her podcast “On with Kara Swisher” that the battle for Altman was not yet over. He acknowledged that Altman could eventually return to lead OpenAI if the hundreds of employees who have threatened to quit succeed in their attempt to lure him back.

However, Microsoft has already won the war: it is the largest shareholder in OpenAI, with a promised investment of $13 billion. That means Nadella and Co get Altman either way: they can have their AI cake and eat it too.

“All these venture capital funds and sovereign wealth funds would have lined up to give Altman the money he needed to do what he wanted,” said Jason Schloetzer, an associate professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

“And now they can’t access it anymore…the only thing they can do is invest in Microsoft.”

Altman is the AI ​​date everyone wants to bring to the prom. Over the past year, he has become the public face of the industry and was instrumental in creating the partnership between OpenAI and Microsoft, which began in 2019. And last year, he introduced ChatGPT to the world, a technology that became synonymous with AI and made its promise real and tangible to millions of people who did not know that software was capable of approaching something so… human.

But Altman is not the ultimate prize: leadership in artificial intelligence is. Technology is being used or has broad implications to disrupt every industry: from driverless cars to finance, education, journalism – and even art and music.

And Microsoft has a huge head start on the competition. Nothing is guaranteed, but its relationship with Altman and OpenAI puts Microsoft in pole position.

The relationship between OpenAI and Microsoft has been beneficial for both companies. OpenAI relies heavily on Microsoft’s cloud computing infrastructure, Azure. And Microsoft’s association with Silicon Valley’s hottest startup has helped improve its image among developers.

If Altman Ultimate joins Microsoft, it “will be able to leverage much of the progress made at OpenAI more directly rather than independently,” said Gil Luria, general manager and principal software analyst at DA Davidson. “(Microsoft) now controls the team that made this remarkable progress, putting them in a position to control the development of this technology for the next several years.”

OpenAI’s future has many AI tech startups scrambling to figure out what happens next: OpenAI’s technology has become the standard for developers, Luria said, and Microsoft will try to maintain this standard rather than cede ground to its rivals Google or Anthropic.

“When you use OpenAI standards, you use Azure,” he said. “The biggest benefit for Microsoft from this relationship with OpenAI has been to reinvigorate Azure’s growth. »

By hiring Altman to lead an internal AI team, Microsoft is counting on the founder’s magnetism to attract talent and investor money, and overcome regulatory hurdles that could hamper the deployment of AI-based tools.

OpenAI’s board of directors has made only vague public statements about the reasons for Altman’s dismissal, saying he was “not always candid in his communications with the board.”

But several people told CNN contributor Kara Swisher that a key factor in the decision was a disagreement over how quickly AI should be brought to market. Altman, according to sources, wanted to move quickly, while OpenAI’s board wanted to move more cautiously.

“The OpenAI debacle is the result of tension between those who believe that AI discoveries are sufficiently safe and should be pursued expeditiously now, and those who believe that AI discoveries… should be tempered by a certain discernment about the potential cost of AI. release them,” Schloetzer said.

Altman has been one of the loudest voices for regulation. At the same time, he was one of the fastest movers, turning OpenAI’s profitable arm into a $90 billion business virtually overnight.

Both achievements are possible, and OpenAI’s strange structure – a non-profit organization overseeing a for-profit company – was designed to prevent AI from destroying humanity. However, the OpenAI soap opera threatens to upset this balance. Soon we may have to rely on Microsoft, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world, to ensure that AI is used for good, not evil.

— Clare Duffy of CNN contributed to this article.

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