Newsdeck

Technology

OpenAI taps ex-Twitch CEO to lead as Altman joins Microsoft

OpenAI taps ex-Twitch CEO to lead as Altman joins Microsoft
Sam Altman. (Photo: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman is joining Microsoft Corp. to lead its 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 artificial intelligence boom.

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

The twin moves move 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 artificial intelligence supremacy from Washington to Beijing, inviting comparisons to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Microsoft’s shares climbed as much as 2.7% in pre-market trading in New York, after closing 1.7% lower Friday.

Shear stepped down as CEO of Amazon.com Inc.’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 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 nonprofit organization, into a successful business — and how quickly he wanted the company to crank out products and sign up customers. That ran headlong into board member concerns over the safety of artificial intelligence 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 $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 $13 billion bet on OpenAI and its former CEO. The US software leader owns almost half of the startup but wasn’t able to sway the board.

OpenAI President Brockman quit 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 Inc. CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley and Helen Toner, director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center 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 tweeted that he’s “in favor of a slowdown” of artificial intelligence 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 barreling ahead at max speed either,” he added.

Shear and representatives of OpenAI didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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,” Shear 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 behavior. At a time when the toxicity associated with gaming culture began running rampant on Twitch, Shear championed trust and safety efforts, people with knowledge of the platform told Bloomberg at the time.

Representatives for OpenAI and Shear didn’t respond to requests for comment. Hours after Sutskever announced Shear’s appointment internally, OpenAI still hadn’t issued a statement.

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

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz