Speculation is rife about what the possible reasons could be for Sam Altman and Greg Brockman’s shock exits from OpenAI on November 17th, 2023. Altman was fired from OpenAI by the rest of the board, while Brockman, was removed from his role as a board member but would be retained in his role as Chairman. Brockman later quit the company altogether.
With such massive success especially in the last year alone, 100 million monthly users, and a commercial version of GPT surpassing a billion dollars in revenue, it’s hard not to wonder why the rest of the OpenAI board would go on to fire the rockstar duo. The situation gets even more complicated with rumors swirling that Altman and Brockman could be brought back to OpenAI if some conditions are met.
We’ll deep dive into the possible reasons for Altman and Brockman’s exit, and the far-reaching implications of this move on the state of Artificial General Intelligence.
The Recent Successes of OpenAI
The shock exit of Brockman and especially Altman’s firing from OpenAI hit the entire world like a nuke. This will potentially be a fine moment in many college classrooms where students are asked to write an essay or research paper on this major event. Explore all the help you can get from an essay writing service if you’re one of these students.
Anyway, OpenAI was fronting the most powerful move in mankind’s digital revolution with Artificial General Intelligence or AGI. OpenAI models such as ChatGPT and DALL-E were a runaway success, with GPT going commercial and on course to hit $1.3 billion in revenue in 2023. OpenAI had also just secured a $13 billion investment from major backer – Microsoft, at the start of the year, signaling the confidence the rest of Silicon Valley had in OpenAI and its founders. The company is currently valued at nearly $30 billion.
In recent interviews, podcasts, and events such as the first-ever OpenAI Developers Conference on Nov-06 2023, both Brockman and Altman restated their confidence in the trajectory that OpenAI was taking. Brockman in particular was optimistic that OpenAI had built a fine base for the future of AGI. Altman and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella seemed close at the Dev-conference and it seemed like the partnership every other Silicon Valley unicorn dreams of.
It’s not hard to see why the whole world is shocked that Altman and Brockman exited the company, no less in the way they did. This is like when Apple fired Steve Jobs in 1985, with a possibly bigger impact. Altman was fired over a Google Meet, with some internet users joking about how the board didn’t even make use of Microsoft Teams, instead relying on a competitor. Microsoft was not even aware of Altman’s firing until one minute before the press release.
The Impact of Altman and Brockman’s Exit
The exit of Brockman and Altman from OpenAI seems counterintuitive to the nature of good business, after all, why take such a drastic move when the company was going so well? According to OpenAI’s website, the organization is run similarly to a private limited company with a non-profit umbrella.
Before the firing, the board of the OpenAI non-profit was comprised of Brockman (Chairman and President), Altman (CEO), Ilya Sutskever (Chief Scientist), and non-employees Adam D’Angelo (Founder of Quora), Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner.
With this in mind, let’s explore possible scenarios of what could have led to this exit.
1. A Board at Loggerheads
The first reason is primarily the one forwarded to the media by the OpenAI board; that the rest of the board had lost confidence in Altman’s ability to lead. The board’s communication with Altman had reportedly broken down, with the board statement quoted as saying:
“Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”
The question is Why? Altman had been at the forefront of finally making OpenAI profitable. He had just completed the successful first OpenAI Dev conference a few days beforehand. What could have been so drastic within the board that they decided to fire Altman unceremoniously and without warning?
Whatever it was it must have represented such a clash of ethical principles that the board decided to fire Altman and effectively lower Brockman’spower as Board
Chairman. However, it gets much more intriguing as Brockman who was more of the science of AGI also resigned.
2. A Clash of Principles
From the very beginning, both Altman and Brockman reiterated that OpenAI remained committed to the founding principles of providing AGI free of the tentacles of profit. Commercial agreements such as the one with Microsoft and other initiatives such as a more profit-hungry ChatGPT and the release of APIs and a new app store seemed to be at odds with AGI principles.
Possible theories floating around Reddit, social media, and other news forums including opinions on prominent news sites suggested that the rest of the board was uncomfortable with the rapid commercialization of OpenAI products. However, in a past podcast interview with Lex Friedman, Brockman acknowledged and predicted that OpenAI would need a lot of money running into the tens of billions to deliver on its dream of a fully actualized AGI.
It therefore might not seem plausible to fire Altman given that the board was fully aware that such issues would eventually arise. The manner in which Altman was let go is even more suggestive that something more could have been cooking.
3. Possible Intention to Declare AGI
Another theory floated is the possibility of a breakthrough in AGI-like tech achieved by OpenAI engineers, with OpenAI seemingly intending to declare AGI in the next few months. The theory proposes that since AGI is carved out of all commercial and IP licensing agreements according to the OpenAI Non-profit charter, declaring AGI would be detrimental to its profit-making efforts.
The theory further goes that Brockman and Altman had purposefully hidden the potential breakthrough in AGI from the non-employee board members. Thus, it makes sense that the other scientist on the board, Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, had a power struggle with Altman and Brockman who were both keen on profit, while still keeping the mission of OpenAI to provide AGI in check.
Ilya had recently suggested that OpenAI was nearly achieving AGI, and it makes sense that Altman would be at odds with him for wanting to monetize too quickly, too far. It isn’t implausible that OpenAI could be sitting much better and greater, after all, OpenAI has sat on GPT-4 and GPT-5 for a couple of months each.
The bottom line here is that Ilya and the rest of the board possibly felt that OpenAI’s tech is nearly at AGI level and is thus deserving of far more caution. Altman and Brockman may in contrast have felt like there is still far more to be done to achieve AGI, for example, discovering new physics.
If Altman and Brockman did not alert the board about the near AGI status, this could be the possible ethical and communication breakdown issue that was part of the press release emphasizing Altman’s firing. It could also explain why Microsoft, OpenAI’s largest investor, was blind-sided by the recent decisions.
What`s Next for OpenAI After Brockman and Altman’s Exit?
Mira Murati OpenAI’s former CTO has replaced Altman as CEO, although this could be for a very short while. At the time of writing this piece, news was already swirling around that the interim CEO and other executives and shareholders were prevailing on the board to bring back Altman and Brockman. Only time will tell.
OpenAI will probably stick to the course of releasing all products that have been advertised to be released. However, with Altman and Brockman gone, pioneers of the company, it might seem difficult to see how the company will evolve in the months and years ahead. Microsoft which previously declined a seat on the board might be forced to get an insider chair to ensure that OpenAI doesn’t lose the profit mission.
The Future of AGI
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Sam Altman and Greg Brockman alongside remaining board member Ilya, were instrumental in the race to create a functioning AGI technology. By all their admissions, they were close to achieving this objective. The theories for the exit surmise that Ilya might have wanted to declare AGI status sooner than Brockman or Altman wanted. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the quest for AGI will continue with Ilya as lead and Chief Scientist.
Some folks have argued that GPT’s glaring faults still make AGI with reasoning conscious still quite far from being achieved in the next few years. The argument is that GPT simply relies on a Markov Chain for decision-making and that some tasks that seem quite intuitive to humans are, in fact, possibly a challenge to ChatGPT’s computational framework.
The shake-up at OpenAI has sent ripples through Silicon Valley and the world of tech, where OpenAI’s capabilities were seen as evolving at breakneck speed. Only board insiders and the folks at OpenAI and Microsoft may know what happened to cause the shock exit of OpenAI’s foundational leaders. Theories that we’ve outlined in this explorative piece suggest that there were potential boardroom differences at OpenAI concerning its commitment to its first mandate of an open AGI.
Whatever the case is, OpenAI will continue to be a major player in the realm of generative AI. Altman and Brockman may rejoin the company in the future, or they might move forward and form a rival company to continue the mission of providing AGI to all. All-in-all, the shakeup serves as a poignant reminder of the tumultuous nature of Silicon Valley boardroom politics.