Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Altman to join Microsoft AI team, as OpenAI board hires former Twitch CEO

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OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman is joining Microsoft to lead its artificial intelligence (AI) effort after the board replaced him with Twitch’s ex-CEO, a stunning reversal for the widely respected tech evangelist who helped jumpstart the AI boom.

Altman and OpenAI president Greg Brockman, who quit the board around the same time, will lead a newly created in-house AI development team at the US software giant, a major OpenAI backer. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a post early on Monday that the company remains committed to its relationship with OpenAI and is looking forward to working with the start-up’s new CEO, Emmett Shear.

The twin moves mark a turning point in the frenetic aftermath of Altman’s firing, which stunned Silicon Valley and set off a campaign led by Nadella and other OpenAI executives to get Altman reinstated.

OpenAI and its globe-trotting co-founder are credited with kicking off a race for AI supremacy from Washington to Beijing, inviting comparisons to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Microsoft’s shares climbed as much as 2.7 per cent in pre-market trading in New York, after closing 1.7 per cent lower Friday.

Emmett Shear (centre), former CEO of game-streaming site Twitch. Photo: EPA-EFE

Shear stepped down as CEO of Amazon.com’s game-streaming site Twitch earlier this year. He won over directors at OpenAI because of his past recognition of the existential threats that AI presented, a person familiar with the matter said.

A computer scientist who spent more than a decade building Twitch into one of the world’s most successful video game live-streaming platforms, Shear is regarded as having the heft to lead a large engineering group, the person added, asking to remain anonymous discussing private matters.

The weekend drama bares the divisions that built up at OpenAI over the years, culminating with the removal of Altman as CEO and a director.

One of the fissures was Altman’s drive to turn OpenAI, which began as a non-profit organisation, into a successful business – and how quickly he wanted the company to crank out products and sign up customers. That ran headlong into board members’ concern over the safety of AI tools capable of generating text, images and even computer code with minimal prompting.

Fallout from the board’s decision to defy investors is likely to be widespread. Thrive Capital had been expected to lead an offer for employee shares, a deal that would value OpenAI at US$86 billion. As of this weekend, the firm had not yet wired the money and it told OpenAI that Altman’s departure will affect its actions.

The turmoil also threatens to undermine Microsoft’s biggest investment in AI, a US$13 billion bet on OpenAI and its former CEO. The US software giant owns almost half of OpenAI, but was not able to sway the start-up’s board.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

Brockman quit OpenAI’s board hours after Altman’s firing. The remaining board of directors are OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who honchoed Altman’s firing, as well as Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology.

Like some members of OpenAI’s board, Shear has ties to the sometimes controversial effective altruism movement, which sees serious risks from advanced AI. Many effective altruists – a pseudo-philosophical movement that seeks to donate money to head off existential risks – have imagined scenarios in which a powerful AI system could wreak widespread harm.

In September, Shear posted on X that he was “in favour of a slowdown” of AI technological advancement. “We can’t learn how to build a safe AI without experimenting, and we can’t experiment without progress, but we probably shouldn’t be barrelling ahead at max speed either,” he added.

Shear and representatives of OpenAI did not respond to requests for comment.


Will ChatGPT replace reporters? We asked AI to write for the Post

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Altman attached several conditions to his return, including changes to the way OpenAI is governed, the removal of the board and a statement absolving him of wrongdoing, people with knowledge of the matter have said. The board was ultimately unwilling to give in to the demands, some of the people said, and instead embarked on their own search for a CEO. The decision to hire Shear is a stinging rebuke to the investors.

When he departed Twitch, which he co-founded, Shear said he wanted to spend more time with his son. “Twitch often feels to me like a child I’ve been raising as well,” he said at the time. “And while I will always want to be there if Twitch needs me, at 16 years old it feels to me Twitch is ready to move out of the house and venture alone.”

Ethan Kurzweil, a partner at venture capital firm Bessemer Partners, was on the board of Twitch when Emmett was CEO. “It’s a great pick,” Kurzweil said in a text message. “No easy task to pick up the pieces right now, but Emmett has all of the skills to succeed in this and I would think enough credibility to calm the rocky waters right now. He’s forward thinking and a very deep technologist, but also a good communicator.”

Shear departed just days before Twitch announced job cuts that affected the company’s ability to police abusive or illegal behaviour. At a time when the toxicity associated with video gaming culture began running rampant on Twitch, Shear championed trust and safety efforts, people with knowledge of the platform told Bloomberg at the time.

Hours after Sutskever announced Shear’s appointment internally, OpenAI still had not issued a statement.

Sutskever also told staff that Altman would not be returning. The day before, on Saturday, Shear favourited a post on X that supported Altman’s ousting that read, “congratulations to ilya for taking his company back after (Altman’s) nefarious coup”.

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