May 24, 2024
OpenAI, emerging from the ashes, has a lot to prove even with Sam Altman's return

In case you missed it, Sam Altman is back as OpenAI CEO. His reinstatement comes after a whirlwind few days in which we saw unusual corporate governance lead to an attempt to oust Altman, despite support from both Microsoft and the vast majority of OpenAI’s workforce. While the whole process was incredibly messy, the result seems very likely to be a stronger OpenAI, with new clarity around mission and purpose.

To be clear, nothing about this felt intentional or strategic. In fact, every twist and turn seemed to come shockingly out of nowhere, from Microsoft’s offer to hire Altman and Greg Brockman to the shock drop-in of Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear as interim CEO — and who could’ve predicted the Harry Potter fanfic community tie-in.

Despite the sheer chaos of how we got here, I think the result will ultimately be a much stronger and more unified OpenAI, which, while it doesn’t benefit Microsoft in quite the same way as acquiring the team without acquiring the company, still means Satya Nadella and Redmond probably come out better off than before, too.

First, the reformed OpenAI government structure will likely be a lot more friendly toward Microsoft, which offers it predictability and stability from its key partner in the generative AI race. Second, Nadella’s guidance and support of Altman and Brockman, and the ultimately victorious team made up of their allies, likely won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Nadella wisely secured himself a position as a key ally and confidant to arguably the most powerful person in generative AI today.

For OpenAI itself, the entire episode led to a “rallying of the troops,” as evidenced by the list of employees who ended up signing the open letter to the board demanding Altman’s return. In the end, more than 710 of the company’s 770 employees signed the letter, which also demanded that the existing board resign; it’s possible the number would’ve been even higher if some of the employees hadn’t been reliant on their OpenAI jobs for immigration purposes.

While you can’t really count that as a pure play approval rating, given the polarized circumstances in which it arose, it is still an extremely significant indication of support for Altman’s leadership and philosophy when it comes to OpenAI’s business strategy. The letter and its signatory count obviously don’t tell the whole story, but moments like this tend to erode small doubts and discrepancies, and temper a new unity of purpose for companies with mission-driven values.

Another point in OpenAI’s favor: While Altman is the star of the show, Brockman also demonstrated terrific leadership and commitment throughout the ordeal, which has to earn him additional loyalty from the OpenAI employee base. He proudly tweeted about the company shipping product updates in the midst of everything going down — even while he was technically not an employee there — and he reiterated that commitment to shipping shortly after news broke of the resolution.

If, as some speculate, the main reason for the rift between the outgoing board and Altman were concerns over the speed at which OpenAI was progressing toward its goal of AGI, then the board’s actions have had exactly the opposite effect they intended. OpenAI is now reformed as a more unified whole, with a clear focus on pursuing Altman’s goals of ensconcing it as the leader in the emerging generative AI mega-industry.

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