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OpenAI, Sam Altman, and Microsoft drama: What you need to know

There are some days when the tech news bleeds into the mainstream news. Big Apple launches, new generation games consoles, Zuckerberg defending Meta privacy scandals, and Elon Musk making us all sigh the biggest sighs.

This is one such day that feels like it could have ramifications for not only the future of technology and artificial intelligence, but the future of humanity itself. Here’s the latest on the upheaval at OpenAI, how Microsoft is capitalising and what it means for the future of AI.

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Last Friday, the board of OpenAI, the powerful company behind the ChatGPT virtual chatbot, announced it was ousting the influential co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, essentially citing a desire for a change in direction to pull back on the breakneck pace of AI development, to ensure greater responsibility moving forward. Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, was announced as interim successor.

“OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity. The board remains fully committed to serving this mission,” the board said in a statement.

“We are grateful for Sam’s many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI. At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward. As the leader of the company’s research, product, and safety functions, Mira is exceptionally qualified to step into the role of interim CEO. We have the utmost confidence in her ability to lead OpenAI during this transition period.”

The weekend saw a groundswell of support from hundreds of OpenAI employees, who threatened to resign unless Altman was brought back in, and the board itself removed. Amid this, one of the four board members who orchestrated the change expressed regret on Monday, along with a desire to reunite the company.

As of Monday November 29, Altman and another co-founder Greg Brockman had been announced as new Microsoft employees. Altman’s new role would be head-up a new AI research division within Microsoft and, it seems, along with any OpenAI employees who wanted to come along.

Microsoft CEO Satay Nadella confirmed the partnership with OpenAI, of which Microsoft already owns a 49% share, would continue and Altman would be among those working with his former company “to provide them with the resources needed for their success.”

Altman too vowed to ensure “OpenAI continues to thrive.”

Throughout Monday, it was thought the deal with Altman wasn’t open and shut and there may still be a chance Altman could return. As of Monday night, that no longer seems possible, as the former OpenAI CEO’s appointment at Microsoft sounds is official.

Whether there’ll be much left of OpenAI’s rank and file staffers and engineers after the dust settles remains to be seen. More than 500 of the 700 employees expressed their solidarity with Altman by threatening to depart the company. There is seemingly an open invitation from Satya Nadella for those disgruntled employees to join the new AI research division at Microsoft.

It appears what may come of this, is Microsoft gaining OpenAI’s best talent, while its ongoing partnership with the company gives Microsoft access to the proprietary technology ChatGPT and other AI innovations are built upon.

Microsoft has invested $13 billion in OpenAI as part of the partnership with the company that is powering new innovations like Windows Copilot, the conversational elements of Bing Search and so much more.

Although Microsoft doesn’t have influence over the board in its minority shareholding, this situation may result in Redmond gaining more more power or a pathway to full ownership of OpenAI at a far lower price than the recent $90 billion valuation.

The decision to ditch Altman is already looking like a terrible own goal from the OpenAI board. Microsoft stands to reap the benefits and perhaps steal the type of AI march that can only be compared to Google’s early and continued dominance of search and, hence, the internet at large.

The events of the last few days are significant; not just for the tech world, but perhaps for humanity itself.

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