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Nearly all OpenAI employees threaten to quit, follow Sam Altman to Microsoft

The future of OpenAI was thrown into chaos Monday after nearly all employees at the artificial intelligence company threatened to quit and join ousted chief executive Sam Altman at Microsoft if he isn’t reinstated as CEO, extending the dramatic Silicon Valley boardroom saga.

More than 700 of the company’s roughly 770 employees have signed a letter threatening to quit unless the current board resigns and reappoints Altman, according to a person familiar with the matter. In a bizarre twist, the letter included among the signatories Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist and a key member of the company’s four-person board, who voted to oust Altman on Friday.

“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI,” the employees wrote in the letter. “We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgment and care for our mission and employees.”

Microsoft said Nov. 20 that it has hired Sam Altman to lead its artificial intelligence research team after he was ousted from OpenAI days earlier. (Video: Reuters)

The potential mass exodus at OpenAI puts the future of the lab in doubt, a drastic change of fate for a company that, until just days ago, was considered one of the most promising start-ups in Silicon Valley with a valuation close to $90 billion. Its demise would leave a gaping hole in the center of the AI industry and potentially force thousands of start-ups to find a new provider of AI technology or face the prospect of shutting down. That could allow Big Tech giants to amass more control over powerful new AI technology, which is rapidly making its way into everyday life. Microsoft especially appeared poised to emerge as a winner, potentially gaining significant AI talent. Still, the chaos at OpenAI, which was already giving its technology to Microsoft as part of a partnership, could also affect Microsoft’s future AI products, which have relied heavily on OpenAI tech.

In a media blitz Monday afternoon, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sought to assure customers and investors that his company was on solid ground no matter the outcome. He left the door open to Altman returning to OpenAI or continuing on as an AI leader at Microsoft, even though he announced late Sunday night that Altman was coming to Microsoft. “I’m open to both options,” Nadella said in an interview on CNBC.

Altman too, has signaled he could still return. “We are all going to work together some way or other,” he said in a post on X Monday morning. He added that the “top priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive. We are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers.”

That leaves the fate of Altman and OpenAI unclear, three full days after the board fired him.

Regardless of the messaging, OpenAI employees continued to express their frustration and anger. Jan Leike, a senior OpenAI executive and respected researcher in the broader AI community who on Sunday was seen going into and out of the company’s offices, said Monday on X that “the OpenAI board should resign.”

Employees who signed the letter include other senior executives such as chief technology officer Mira Murati, who had been named interim CEO by the board on Friday but was replaced by Emmett Shear on Sunday; chief operating officer Brad Lightcap; chief strategy officer Jason Kwon; and head of safety Lillian Weng. Many of the company’s top researchers, AI luminaries who can command salaries in the tens of millions of dollars, also signed, including Wojciech Zaremba, Alec Radford and Bob McCrew. Without them, OpenAI would struggle to keep up with other research labs run by Google, Facebook and Anthropic AI.

The latest development comes after a chaotic, rapidly changing weekend for OpenAI. On Friday, its board abruptly removed Altman from his role as chief executive, saying he was “not consistently candid” in his communications. That set off a dizzying two-day period during which Altman visited company headquarters to negotiate his potential return to the lab, only to see those negotiations collapse Sunday night into early Monday, when Microsoft announced Altman was joining the company, along with Greg Brockman, the former OpenAI president who had quit in solidarity with Altman. Late Sunday, OpenAI’s board said it would back its ouster of Altman and appointed Shear, the co-founder of Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform, as interim CEO.

After several days of being jeered by Silicon Valley heavyweights for ousting Altman, Sutskever on Monday appeared to switch his allegiance. “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI,” Sutskever wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.”

Altman and Brockman embraced the message, retweeting Sutskever’s post with heart emojis. Bewildered observers tried to keep up with the twists and turns of a Silicon Valley boardroom showdown.

Much of what employees are feeling played out publicly on X, as dozens of employees at OpenAI signaled their support for Altman: “OpenAI is nothing without its people.” Three high-level researchers who left OpenAI on Friday after Altman was ousted are joining Microsoft, according to Brockman’s post on X. They include the AI lab’s former research director, Jakub Pachocki; previous head of preparedness Aleksander Madry; and former researcher Szymon Sidor.

Altman’s ouster leaves OpenAI without an executive who pushed it to build new consumer products and charge ahead with releasing AI out into the world. The firing highlighted a major rift among AI researchers and executives, where some people think the tech should be rushed forward with minimal government regulation to make money and provide helpful tools to people, while others are concerned that it could quickly surpass human intelligence and turn on its creators. OpenAI was founded as a nonprofit to provide a counter to Big Tech’s power in AI, but as the company took on more investment money and began developing consumer products, some in the industry said it had abandoned its mission.

“Honestly, it is heartbreaking to see such a world-changing organization be ripped apart,” said Sarah Guo, a venture capitalist and founder of Conviction. “The previous standard-bearer for the AI revolution, the unassailable giant in the room is vulnerable, and new leadership will have their work cut out for them to build customer and employee trust. This completely changes the strategic landscape and emboldens every other player.”

Other tech companies across Silicon Valley including Nvidia, Meta and Salesforce pounced on the disruption, signaling their interest in snapping up available OpenAI engineers and researchers.

“We [love] you all from OpenAI,” Jim Fan, a senior AI scientist at Nvidia, which makes AI chips, said on X.

Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, said his company will match any resigning OpenAI researcher’s salary and equity package they received at the lab, “to immediately” join Salesforce’s AI research team.

Meanwhile, Shear said in a statement that he took the interim CEO job after “reflecting on it for just a few hours,” and said he has a “three point plan for the company” during his first 30 days. The plan includes the hiring of an independent investigator to “dig into” the company turmoil, and reforming OpenAI’s management and leadership team in light of recent departures, he said.

“OpenAI’s stability and success are too important to allow turmoil to disrupt them like this,” Shear added.

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