Threat of OpenAI staff exodus leaves its future uncertain

OpenAI’s future is in jeopardy after more than 700 of its 770 employees signed a letter Monday saying they could leave the company for Microsoft if ousted CEO Sam Altman is not reinstated at the leading artificial intelligence start-up. .

OpenAI’s four-person board shocked the tech industry Friday afternoon when it removed Mr. Altman, saying they could no longer trust him. One of the board members who expelled Mr. Altman then reversed course on Monday and signed the letter demanding his reinstatement.

The board’s decision set off a frenzied weekend of unexpected corporate maneuvering that ended with Mr. Altman arriving at Microsoft to launch a new AI project. Early Monday morning, all 700 employees had signed the letter, according to three people familiar with the matter.

This upheaval casts doubt on the future of one of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley history. At a time when the industry was plagued by mass layoffs, OpenAI’s technology fueled the creation of hundreds of startups. Today, many of these companies are worried about their prospects.

“It’s the debacle of the decade,” said Gaurav Oberoi, founder of Lexion, a startup that leverages OpenAI to help companies streamline legal, business and vendor contracts. “It’s a lesson in how to destroy a huge amount of value and their own reputation overnight.”

OpenAI declined to comment. Emmett Shear, whom the board named interim CEO Sunday evening, declined immediate comment because he was busy on another call.

The letter said Microsoft assured OpenAI employees that there were positions for everyone if they chose to join its new AI subsidiary. Microsoft declined to comment.

In addition to Mr. Altman, several key OpenAI employees have already joined Microsoft’s new AI subsidiary. That includes Greg Brockman, the president of OpenAI who left the startup in solidarity after Mr. Altman’s ouster. Early Monday morning, in a post on

Mr. Pachocki led the development of GPT-4, the technology behind OpenAI’s popular chatbot, ChatGPT. He has long worked closely with Mr. Brockman, an engineer who helped found OpenAI in 2015 alongside Mr. Altman and has been deeply involved in nearly every aspect of the company’s operations since its inception .

Now, the more than 700 OpenAI employees who signed the letter can also join this core Microsoft team. In a remarkable reversal, this includes OpenAI’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever, who was on the board that ousted Mr. Altman. “I never intended to harm OpenAI,” he said on X. “I love everything we have built together and will do everything I can to bring the company together. ” (Mr. Altman reposted the post and added three red hearts.)

Internally, OpenAI staff members were upset in the hours after the board memo was released and well into the evening, two OpenAI employees told the New York Times. Workers privately shared morbid jokes and memes about the power struggles of the HBO show “Succession,” employees said. Many used private group chats and video calls to plan their next steps and to commiserate with each other.

OpenAI still maintains its own partnership with Microsoft. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in a message to X on Monday that his company remains committed to the partnership. He said Microsoft would continue to work with the startup to sell a wide range of products and services based on GPT-4 and other OpenAI technologies.

But if most of OpenAI’s employees go to Microsoft, the startup will struggle to build the next generation of AI technologies — systems that will be more powerful than ChatGPT. Other companies, including Google and Meta, are working on such technologies.

Lexion’s Oberoi said his company uses OpenAI’s Large Language Models, or LLMs, to develop new features because its AI technologies are more advanced than any others on the market. But following this weekend’s unrest, he said Lexion would develop parallel features with Anthropic, an OpenAI rival, so the company “can change quickly if necessary.”

“This highlights a big ongoing debate: will you build your technology, platforms and key features on third-party LLMs? » said Mr. Oberoi. “As a manufacturer on top of their products, I fear there will be other sudden decisions that could impact our models. Plus, it’s very expensive.

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