Nov 21, 2023 - Technology

OpenAI's drama has two likely endings. Microsoft will like either one

Illustration of the Microsoft logo with binoculars viewing the OpenAI logo

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said late Sunday night that ousted OpenAI CEO Sam Altman would join Microsoft and head up a new AI research unit — and 24 hours later, that's still Plan A.

The intrigue: A Plan B remains a possibility — and palatable to Microsoft: It involves the OpenAI board resigning and OpenAI going forward as an independent company with Altman back at the helm.

Yes, but: The one thing Microsoft isn't OK with — as Nadella made clear in a series of interviews Monday — is OpenAI's current board and governance structure.

Driving the news: Roughly 745 of OpenAI's approximately 770 employees signed an open letter saying they would leave OpenAI and join Microsoft unless the board resigned "imminently."

  • Nadella conducted interviews with CNBC and Bloomberg in which he made clear that Microsoft is not comfortable with OpenAI's board and structure no matter how things proceed.
  • "We definitely would want some governance changes. Surprises are bad," he told Bloomberg TV.

Zoom in: Rival tech companies have begun making overtures to poach OpenAI talent, both privately to individuals and publicly to the whole workforce.

  • Some, like Google AI executive Jeff Dean, made subtle gestures. Others, such as Salesfoce CEO Marc Benioff, made their outreach blunt and specific.
  • "Salesforce will match any OpenAI researcher who has tendered their resignation full cash & equity OTE to immediately join our Salesforce Einstein Trusted AI research team under Silvio Savarese," Benioff posted on X (formerly Twitter).

However, OpenAI's employees appear to be mostly unified in support of Altman and Greg Brockman, the company's former board chair and president, who quit on Friday.

  • "This is a super generous offer! I'm sure my team really appreciates it. But we're with @sama @miramurati and @gdb to the end," replied OpenAI researcher Tony Wu.

The big picture: The turmoil at OpenAI has also created uncertainty for the legions of developers who built their products around OpenAI's technology over the past year since ChatGPT's debut.

  • But their landscape isn't likely to radically change whether Altman and his team are reunited at OpenAI, or under Microsoft's wing.
  • While the people and technology shifting to Microsoft would represent a change, Microsoft is keen to see lots of developers building on top of its AI technology — and it knows plenty about creating massive platforms for developers.
  • If Altman and Brockman end up returning to OpenAI with a new board, they may be able to speak with even more authority about the company's roadmap, with less risk of being overruled by the board.

Go deeper: OpenAI chaos: A timeline of firings, interim CEOs, re-hirings and other twists

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