In firing Altman, OpenAI’s board wanted to keep the element of surprise

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A rendition of OpenAI’s logo, which looks like a stylized whirlpool.
Illustration: The Verge

We still don’t know the whole story around the conflict between OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and the company’s board, but more and more is leaking out. A new report, from The New Yorker, alleges that OpenAI’s old board deliberately excluded Microsoft after initially voting to expel Sam Altman as CEO, and they actually believed the company would back them.

In the sprawling story, New Yorker reported Microsoft executives were blindsided by the decision to oust Sam Altman, possibly to prevent Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella from warning Altman what was about to happen.

Altman has a reputation for being a shrewd business person, and part of the decision not to inform Microsoft was to ensure that he would be surprised.

When OpenAI announced Altman’s ouster, it seemed the firing revolved around the debate over the dangers of AI and the belief that Altman had not been forthcoming with information. Shocking in hindsight, the board thought that Microsoft would understand their decision.

But the board had a different impression. After all, Microsoft, whose forays into AI had been choppy at best, created a responsible AI division and was concerned about the technology’s dangers. It wanted to avoid anthropomorphizing AI, too!

However, the company integrated GPT into its products very quickly and clearly wants more people to bring AI into their everyday lives. Microsoft CEO Nadella even told The Verge at the launch of the ChatGPT-powered Bing that he wanted to use AI as a way to make Google “dance.”

Which is probably why, as The New Yorker reported, many in Microsoft found the OpenAI board’s decision “mind-bogglingly stupid” and felt it could destroy the ChatGPT developer.

Microsoft executives then created three plans. The first was to back OpenAI CTO Mira Murati, who was appointed chief executive by the board for a few hours, and get leadership to reverse its decision or explain its reasoning. The second was to use its influence as the largest investor in the company to reinstate Altman, and the third, which it eventually did, was to hire Altman and anyone else who wanted to go with him to rebuild inside Microsoft.

Of course, in the end, Altman is back at OpenAI, and Microsoft joined the OpenAI board as an observer, and we still don’t know the precise reasons the board elected to fire Altman in the first place.