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analysis

After Sam Altman drama at OpenAI, Microsoft is the big winner — and Elon Musk’s worst nightmare

The top talent that developed ChatGPT could defect to the tech giant

Elon MuskTolga Akmen/Bloomberg

In tech, all roads lead to Musk.

Years ago, Elon Musk helped found OpenAI, the startup developing ChatGPT, because he was worried that tech giant Google was moving too quickly into artificial intelligence without considering the risks. He even hired away one of Google’s top AI scientists to lead the effort.

After OpenAI fired its chief executive, Sam Altman, and descended into chaos last weekend, the big winner appeared to be Microsoft, another tech giant racing to commercialize AI. On Sunday evening, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that Altman and some of OpenAI’s research team would be joining Microsoft. (As of late Monday, hundreds of OpenAI workers were threatening to quit if Altman was not reinstated.)

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Musk was left to making quips and critiques on the social media service he owns. “Yikes,” Musk posted in reaction to news of Microsoft’s growing AI investments as the company planned to put Altman in charge of a new AI subsidiary.

Other AI critics similarly worried that the outcome of OpenAI’s chaos would accelerate research with fewer safeguards.

“The EU AI Act is likely to be gutted of real teeth, and OpenAI is likely to reboot with far less commitment to AI safety than it had before,” wrote NYU professor emeritus Gary Marcus on the service formerly known as Twitter. “If AI does go wrong (nobody can really be sure either way), November 2023 may turn out to be a major negative inflection point.”

Musk, Marcus, and many others have been warning for years that Silicon Valley’s unrestrained development of artificial intelligence could be dangerous. AI could create “profound risks to society and humanity,” wrote the pair, along with hundreds of other scientists and tech figures, in March in a public letter calling for a research pause.

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To be sure, Musk saw the writing on the wall for OpenAI earlier this year when the startup expanded its deal with Microsoft, allowing for significant profits. “OpenAI was created as an open source (which is why I named it ‘Open’ AI), nonprofit company to serve as a counterweight to Google, but now it has become a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft,” he wrote in February. “Not what I intended at all.”

Musk formed OpenAI in 2015 along with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, venture capitalists Jessica Livingston and Peter Thiel, and others who were concerned about the risks of the tech industry’s headlong, for-profit pursuit of AI. OpenAI’s goal was “to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” Musk hired Ilya Sutskever, a famed AI researcher, away from Google to serve as research director.

But after a power struggle, Musk left the company’s board and stopped funding OpenAI in 2018.

Without Musk’s influence, OpenAI quickly shifted its focus. In 2019, the company named Altman as CEO and won financial backing from Microsoft. At the time, it also created a subsidiary that could seek profits, though capped at 100 times its outside investments. And it shifted from publicly releasing its AI research to seeking to commercially license its software.

The company took off just under a year ago when it released ChatGPT. The app’s ability to respond to questions with human-like answers attracted 100 million users in under two months, not to mention thousands of other companies and developers aiming to add the technology to other programs.

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Altman appeared in full command two weeks ago when OpenAI held its first-ever developer conference in San Francisco. The company unveiled a new feature dubbed GPTs that allowed users to craft their own customized chatbots without needing any computer programming skills.

But Friday afternoon, OpenAI’s board issued a terse statement that Altman was leaving: “Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

Chief technology officer Mira Murati was appointed interim CEO.

Quickly, president and cofounder Greg Brockman and several top researchers also departed. Over the weekend, OpenAI’s board explored rehiring Altman and making further changes to the company’s governance. Sutskever initially supported Altman’s firing but had a change of heart. Murati also apparently ended up supporting bringing Altman back.

But the negotiations apparently failed and by Sunday night, Altman was joining Microsoft “to lead a new advanced AI research team,” CEO Satya Nadella wrote. With Murati supporting Altman, OpenAI announced former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear would take over.

Many more OpenAI researchers may follow Altman. A letter signed by more than 700 people working at OpenAI, including Murati and former Olin student Alec Radford, criticized the board’s decision to fire Altman.

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“Microsoft has assured us that there are positions for all OpenAI employees at this new subsidiary should we choose to join,” they wrote.

A few hours later, Musk greeted the news by posting a scene from “The Godfather” showing the Corleone family executing its rivals while Michael Corleone participated in a baptism.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him @ampressman.