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Hundreds of OpenAI workers threaten to leave over CEO Sam Altman's firing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been a dizzying few days for the artificial intelligence startup OpenAI. Its board of directors made a surprise move and fired the CEO, Sam Altman. Now hundreds of employees have signed a letter threatening to leave the company unless the board is dissolved and Altman comes back. NPR's Dara Kerr is here to talk about it. Hey, Dara.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, tell us what's in this letter.

KERR: Yeah. This is something we've never really seen before in Silicon Valley, where employees of a company basically hold a mass revolt. This isn't just any company, OpenAI. It makes a popular chatbot, ChatGPT, which has been on the vanguard of a powerful form of artificial intelligence that is now changing our world. So OpenAI has around 770 employees, and last night 500 of them signed this letter to the board. The letter says that employees have lost faith in the board and that, by firing Sam Altman, they jeopardize the mission of OpenAI. The employees demand the entire board resign and reinstate Altman and his co-founder, Greg Brockman. And now even more employees have signed the letter throughout the course of today, around 700 of them. That's nearly the entire company.

SHAPIRO: Incredible to think of those hundreds of employees all speaking with one voice. Explain for us how this all got started.

KERR: So late Friday afternoon, the news breaks that OpenAI's board had fired Altman. Everyone was surprised, including Altman himself and the company's employees. The board published a blog post online and said that Altman hadn't been candid in his communication with them, and they'd lost their confidence in his ability to lead OpenAI. But they didn't give any specific reasons. And that was just the beginning.

At the time, the board said it was appointing the company's chief technology officer as the new CEO, but then that was quickly rescinded. And the job is now going to Emmett Shear, who's the co-founder of Twitch, which is a popular video game platform. Meanwhile, Altman was angling to come back to OpenAI, but those talks fell apart. Speculation has been flying about why he was fired, which is still pretty much an unknown. Here's Jo-Ellen Pozner, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Business.

JO-ELLEN POZNER: It's impossible to know what happens at a board meeting ever. So it's hard to know exactly what their motivation was and who was the driving force.

KERR: Then things switched up again. Last night Microsoft announced it was hiring Altman and Brockman to lead its AI team.

SHAPIRO: And this wasn't entirely out of the blue because Microsoft already had a deep, longstanding relationship with Altman and OpenAI, right?

KERR: Yes. Microsoft owns a 49% stake in OpenAI and has invested billions of dollars in the startup. OpenAI is the leading company for generative AI. Its ChatGPT has written poems like Emily Dickinson. It's passed the bar exam, and it can mimic human behavior in very realistic ways. Many say this new wave of technology could forever change our lives, much like the internet did in the 1990s. And eventually it could be worth trillions. But some technologists warn the technology has a potential to cause harm, with things like disinformation running rampant and chatbots taking away people's jobs. So what's happening with OpenAI isn't just about corporate drama in Silicon Valley. It's really about how this critical technology is being created and controlled.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Dara Kerr. Thank you.

KERR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.