The chaos at OpenAI since Friday has been very real, and it has the ability to impact very real people well beyond the ChatGPT service. It all started with the ousting of CEO Sam Altman and went south from there — but things got stranger from there.
As I write this OpenAI has a new CEO, but it seems that nobody wants him there. The old CEO might have now gone to Microsoft — a key investor in OpenAI — but isn’t actually employed by the company yet. And there’s still talk of a return to OpenAI, too.
And in the middle of all that? The vast majority of OpenAI’s workforce has threatened to walk out if they don’t get their own way. In short, there has been more turmoil at OpenAI in the last few days than most companies ever experience, and it shows no sign of letting up. And while that seems to be a terrible thing for OpenAI and its investors, it might not be all that bad for another company — Apple.
What’s going on at OpenAI?
Things all kicked off on Friday when the OpenAI board took the decision to fire Altman in a move that seemed to take everyone else by surprise. It certainly took Microsoft by surprise, a company that has invested multiple billions of dollars in OpenAI and uses its technology in various aspects of its own services and features.
Since then there was talk over the weekend of Altman being brought back to the company after it became clear that at least some members of the board were starting to have second thoughts. That all changed when OpenAI announced that Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear would be taking over the company. But The Verge reports that the move wasn’t well received inside OpenAI with staff members refusing to join an all-hands meeting with the new CEO. Altman was then said to have taken a role at Microsoft, with many expecting something of an OpenAI exodus as a result.
That fear has since been backed up with almost every OpenAI employee writing a letter demanding that the board resign over the mess, threatening to quit if that doesn’t happen. Some of those employees risk their U.S. immigration status if they follow through.
I am on an H-1B, in the process of getting my green card and relocating my family to the US.Me and many other colleagues in a similar situation have signed this letter.I do not know what will happen next, but I am confident we will be taken care of.the board should resign. https://t.co/UOGLqHEWp9November 20, 2023
At this point, it’s clear that Altman has the ear and support of his former employees. Even one of the board members who previously fired him has turned. Chief scientist Ilya Sutskever was reportedly a key driver behind the decision to fire Altman, making this backtracking particularly interesting.
What happens next?
From here, anything could happen. Altman posted on X to say that he expects to be working with his former OpenAI employees “some way or other” but it remains to be seen which company will be on their payslips when that happens.
As for why this is happening, the board intimated that Altman was keeping some things from them, although it isn’t clear what those things were. It’s important to remember that the OpenAI business is under the wing of a non-profit OpenAI entity, and it’s possible that there are issues with the way the for-profit company continues to rapidly iterate and grow at a time when the impact of AI is still up for debate. If that tension is behind the parent company’s misgivings, it’s difficult to see how that changes without the ChatGPT creator being spun off.
There’s only one winner, and it’s Apple
Of course, none of this is good for OpenAI, whether it’s the non-profit or the for-profit side of the business you look at. The board has not covered itself in glory, to say the least, and companies that were building on the back of ChatGPT are already said to be looking elsewhere in case things go south.
As for Apple, it’s possible that all of this could give it at least some time to try and close the gap between its efforts and those of the Open-Microsoft partnership. Apple is said to be working on its own Large Language Model tech, including the so-called AppleGPT chatbot software. Any destabilization of OpenAI and its development roadmap gives the competition an opportunity — whether they can take advantage or not will depend on their own chops and how quickly Microsoft can get a hold of whatever’s going on at OpenAI these days.