Updated Nov 20, 2023 - Technology

Tech's weekend of chaos

Illustration of a cursor on fire

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

It's been a chaotic few days for several high-profile tech companies — and their influential leaders — working to shape the future.

Driving the news: Coming in at a 9.6 on the wow-o-meter: generative AI darling OpenAI's ongoing self-destruction, which began Friday with the board's sudden and largely unexplained removal of CEO Sam Altman.

  • There was no prior indication that Altman's job was at risk. He's long been seen as a rising star in the AI world, and he was a centerpiece of the company's first developer conference earlier this month.
  • OpenAI's board said Altman had not been "consistently candid in his communications." Bloomberg later reported on a schism between those at OpenAI who felt the company and its potentially world-changing technology were moving along too quickly and others, including Altman, who wanted to keep their foot on the gas.
  • The drama continued through the weekend, with Altman showing up at OpenAI HQ before taking a job with Microsoft — OpenAI's largest shareholder — heading up a new "advanced AI research team" along with ex-OpenAI president Greg Brockman.

The latest: A vast majority of OpenAI workers signed a stunning open letter published Monday threatening to quit and go work at Microsoft unless the board resigns and Altman is reinstated.

  • "We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgement and care for our mission and employees," reads the letter.

The intrigue: OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who led the board's anti-Altman rebellion, now says he "deeply regrets" his actions, Axios' Scott Rosenberg reports.

  • Sutskever even signed the aforementioned letter, essentially calling for his own resignation.

What's next: It's far from a settled situation.

  • But if Altman and any others who follow him to Microsoft stay there, it's a major coup for CEO Satya Nadella, who may essentially be able to acquire OpenAI — or at least much of its core talent — for relative pennies on the dollar, all while skirting potential antitrust oversight.

Meanwhile: The Altman drama — so unexpected and irresistible as a story — somewhat overshadowed the ongoing exodus of major advertisers at X (formerly Twitter) following owner Elon Musk's embrace of antisemitic messages.

  • Apple, IBM, Disney, Comcast/NBCUniversal, Paramount and more have either pulled or "paused" advertising on X.
  • Marketing and brand leaders are pushing X CEO Linda Yaccarino to resign, Axios' Sara Fischer reports. (Yaccarino headed up advertising at NBCUniversal before taking the top job at X following Musk's rocky acquisition of the company.)

What they're saying: "I think the advertising community is now working to save the reputation of a beloved member of our industry who does not share Elon Musk's views and certainly did not know them when she accepted the role of CEO," Lou Paskalis, founder and CEO of marketing consultancy AJL Advisory and former head of global media at Bank of America, told Sara.

Of note: Shrapnel from Musk's explosive comments is also wounding Tesla, where he's CEO, with shares there tumbling on the news last week.

  • Tesla is also struggling with quality control issues and concerns that its much-hyped Cybertruck pickup won't live up to expectations.
  • And Musk's rocket company, SpaceX, had a mixed weekend, with the second major test flight of its next-generation Starship vehicle generating useful data but ending in a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" — rocketry-speak for "it blew up."

Yes, and: Kyle Vogt, co-founder and CEO of General Motors-owned robotaxi startup Cruise, resigned Sunday amid a disastrous few weeks for the company.

  • Co-founder and chief product officer Daniel Kan followed suit Monday.
  • Cruise recently paused operations after it lost permission to operate in San Francisco following an incident that left a pedestrian badly wounded — and raised new questions over whether robotaxis are ready to share the road with humans.
  • GM, which has lost more than $8 billion on Cruise since 2017, is now grabbing the wheel before the company's mounting problems irrevocably damage CEO Mary Barra's legacy, as Axios' Joann Muller has reported.

The bottom line: For OpenAI and Cruise, at least, the shared connective tissue here is speed: How fast do we deploy transformative — yet possibly dangerous — technology?

  • More broadly, all three episodes are a reminder that the people and companies trying to design the future are imperfect, that leadership matters, and that nobody's immune to potentially catastrophic unforced errors.
Go deeper