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Sam Altman’s Counter-Rebellion Leaves OpenAI Leadership Hanging in the Balance

AI startup’s ousted chief executive tries to negotiate his return

By Berber Jin
Mon, Nov 20, 2023 9:52amGrey Clock 3 min

SAN FRANCISCO—Two days after Sam Altman was ousted from OpenAI, he was back at the company’s office, trying to negotiate his return.

The former chief executive officer entered with a guest badge on Sunday and posted on X: “first and last time i ever wear one of these.”

The leadership of the company that created the hit AI chatbot ChatGPT remained unclear Sunday, as investors and many employees pushed over the weekend to restore Altman. He has been engineering a countercoup to retake control of one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable and high-profile startups.

The abrupt shake-up at OpenAI turns on one of the oldest tales in Silicon Valley: a breakup between a founder and his board.

But in this case it was a very particular kind of founder—the face of Silicon Valley’s artificial-intelligence revolution—and a very particular kind of board, which was tasked with making social good a priority over profit. The rupture threatens the future of the company and the billions of dollars investors had put into it.

Altman has also been considering starting his own venture, potentially with talent from OpenAI. He is pursuing both tracks: On Sunday morning, Chief Technology Officer and interim CEO Mira Murati sent a note to staff saying Altman would be returning to the San Francisco office later that day as discussions to reinstate him continued.

Over the weekend, Altman made clear to his allies that if he does return, he wants a new board and governance structure, people familiar with the matter said.

Two days after the board fired Altman, different explanations persisted for the initial firing. The board said Friday it pushed out the CEO after it concluded he hadn’t been candid with the company’s directors. It didn’t elaborate.

Over the weekend, people close to Altman said the ouster had more to do with disputes around the safety of the company’s artificial-intelligence efforts and a power struggle with one co-founder and board member in particular, Ilya Sutskever.

On Sunday, a person familiar with the board stood by the board’s statement citing Altman’s lack of candor. This person said there was no single precipitating incident but rather a mounting loss of trust over communications with Altman that led it to remove him as CEO. The person declined to offer examples.

The ouster from OpenAI wasn’t the first time Altman was asked to leave a company. Several years ago, senior leaders at the venture firm Y Combinator asked Altman to step down as president after mounting concerns about the time he was spending on his other business endeavours, including at OpenAI, according to investors briefed by the venture firm’s executives—information not previously reported.

In addition to OpenAI, Altman recently hatched plans for two new business endeavours. He enlisted Apple’s former chief design officer, Jony Ive, to create a consumer hardware device. And he recently spent weeks in the Middle East gauging investor interest for a new startup aiming to create low-cost chips needed to train OpenAI’s artificial-intelligence models, people familiar with the matter said.

It is unclear whether those efforts, or the communication around it, played into Altman’s dismissal. Bloomberg earlier reported on the new chips venture. The Information and the Financial Times earlier reported the new Ive venture.

With his firing from OpenAI, Altman quickly got the upper hand in terms of public messaging. The board didn’t use a communications or law firm in its dealings, people familiar with the board said, expecting that the OpenAI team would help them. But Altman had loyalty from investors and employees.

The board ended up isolated as social media exploded with shock and support for Altman. His largest backers, including Microsoft and Thrive Capital, immediately on Friday began pressing for Altman’s position to be restored. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella began working with Altman that evening on his next steps, people familiar with Altman said.

Despite his business success, Altman had been losing the support of a board whose constituents changed as the company’s commercial efforts powered ahead. It was a board structure that he had ironically helped create and publicly promoted as he encountered questions about AI safety.

Before Friday’s dust-up, the board consisted of six people, including Altman. Then, it abruptly removed Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president and a close friend of Altman’s, and voted to oust Altman. None of the four board members remaining were affiliated with the company’s big investors. It isn’t clear whether the vote was unanimous.

The board that took the action was down from the nine seats it had earlier in the year and lacked at least one key prior Altman backer. Earlier this year, Reid Hoffman, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a long history of supporting Altman, stepped down after starting a rival company to OpenAI.

Separately, Shivon Zilis, a tech executive at Elon Musk’s brain-implant startup Neuralink, and Will Hurd, who started a presidential campaign, also left this year.

The board had been working to fill those empty seats for months, though the process stalled, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The other four directors are: Adam D’Angelo, a former Facebook executive and the founder of the question-and-answer website Quora; Tasha McCauley, an adjunct senior management scientist at Rand; Helen Toner, a director at a Washington nonprofit; and OpenAI’s chief scientist, Sutskever.

Altman this weekend was furious with himself for not having ensured the board stayed loyal to him and regretted not spending more time managing its various factions, people familiar with his thinking said.



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How cost of living pressures are impacting the health of Australians

Money worries are having a cascading effect on stress levels, conflict and even the rate of ageing

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Worrying about the cost of living is causing accelerated ageing, household arguments and creating significant stress, according to new research. More than half of Australians say they have experienced personal setbacks due to financial strain over the past year. Almost 20 percent say that have suffered a stress-related illness, 33 percent have lost sleep and almost one in five are seeing signs of early ageing.

Household hostility is also rising, with 19 percent of Australians admitting they have argued with their partners about money, and a further one in 10 have argued with family and friends.

The Finder survey of 1,070 Australians reveals women are bearing the brunt of financial stress, with 62 percent reporting they have worried about money compared to 42 percent of men.

Younger Australians are struggling the most, with almost 7 in 10 Gen Z respondents reporting financial strain compared to 58 percent of Gen Xers and 24 percent of baby boomers.

The impact of cost-of-living pressures among different age groups and income levels is reflected in new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The selected living cost indexes show employee households are under more strain from inflation, with the CPI measure for this population group at 6.5 percent today compared to the official overall CPI figure of just 3.6 percent.

The discrepancy is due to higher mortgage interest payments – which make up a higher proportion of expenditure for employee households — as well as an increase in primary and secondary school fees, and the indexation of tertiary education fees at the start of the year. The official CPI does not include mortgage payments, so the living cost indexes provide a more accurate picture of how rising interest rates are impacting households with mortgages today.

The inflation rate is much lower for older Australians, who have often paid off their mortgages. The inflation rate on living expenses for age pensioner households is below the official CPI level at 3.3 percent, and it’s only slightly higher at 3.4 percent for self-funded retirees.

Graham Cooke, head of consumer research at Finder, said that despite cooling inflation, Australians were still under significant financial pressure.

This can be seen in Finders Cost of Living Pressure Gauge, which has been hovering in the extreme range for the past year and a half, Mr Cooke said. The gauge returned a reading of 78 percent in March this year compared to 47 percent in March 2021, when inflation was 1.1 percent and the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate was 0.1 percent.

Interestingly, Australians’ cash savings are higher today than they were in 2021, likely reflecting stimulus payments received and saved during the pandemic. The Reserve Bank has cited pandemic savings as a factor in keeping mortgage arrears low despite much higher interest rates. The Finder research shows Australians have an average of $37,206 in cash savings today, up from $24,928 two years ago.

Money concerns can cause problems in your everyday life and snowball quickly if you don’t get them under control,” Mr Cooke said. Building financial resilience is as vital as ever as costs continue to rise. Pay close attention to where your money is going so you keep impulse spending to a minimum, and don’t overspend.

Australians appear to be heeding this advice, with the latest ABS retail figures showing seven straight quarters of declining per capita spending. “Per capita volumes show retail turnover after the effects of inflation and population growth have been accounted for,” explained Ben Dorber, ABS head of retail statistics. “Following an unprecedented seven straight falls, it is very clear how much consumers have pulled back on spending in response to cost of living pressures over the past two years.

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