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With Sam Altman back as CEO, what's next for OpenAI


After days of chaos at OpenAI, ousted CEO Sam Altman will be returning to his position. The company that created ChatGPT will reorganize its board and attempt to stabilize this company in turmoil. To help us make sense of this Silicon Valley saga, we are joined by NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn. Hey, Bobby.


SHAPIRO: I've got whiplash following this story over the last few days.

ALLYN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Bring us up to speed. What's happened now?

ALLYN: Sure. So last week, OpenAI's board of directors shocked all of Silicon Valley by announcing it had fired Sam Altman. And for those who don't know, he's the 38-year-old co-founder of OpenAI who helped the company release products like ChatGPT. His ouster was so surprising, Ari, because he's very respected and well-liked both within the company and across Silicon Valley. But the board saw him differently.

Now, not long after, Microsoft, which is OpenAI's biggest investor, announced it was hiring Altman. Then more than 700 employees at OpenAI, you know, nearly the entire company, wrote an open letter saying they would all quit en masse if Altman wasn't brought back. That spooked the board, since the entire company quitting would obviously be a big problem, so Altman was reinstated with a new board that includes former Twitter board chairman Bret Taylor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. But this saga is far from over, Ari, many big questions remain.

SHAPIRO: Like what? Why doesn't Altman's return close the chapter of the book?

ALLYN: Well, we don't know why Altman was ousted in the first place. The board, in its initial statement about Altman's firing, said he was not consistently candid with the board, but they never elaborated. And as part of his return, Altman agreed to an investigation into his leadership of OpenAI by an outside firm. So, you know, we'll see. Maybe that will provide some clarity. But for now, it just remains really murky.

Other questions include what kind of scars remain after all this drama. For example, another OpenAI co-founder, Ilya Sutskever, voted to push Altman out, but then did an about-face and reversed his decision. And he's sticking around with Altman's return - a little awkward. But, you know, Ari, across the company, this boardroom shake-up really rattled everyone. And there's a real question about how sapped employee morale is right now and whether that's going to impact their ability to continue to crank out new AI products.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like there could be some drama at the company holiday party.

ALLYN: (Laughter) Yes.

SHAPIRO: OpenAI has an unusual business model. Can you talk about how that may have contributed to this chaos?

ALLYN: Yeah, the strange structure of OpenAI really played a major part here. And let me explain. When OpenAI was founded in 2015, it was envisioned as a nonprofit, right? Its mission was to develop AI products almost like a think tank or a research lab, to try to do it outside of the build-as-fast-as-possible ethos of Big Tech. And this worked in theory, but not in practice, right? Building and maintaining AI tools is really expensive. The computer power needed, you know, to run every single ChatGPT search that we do is immense.

And so in order to keep scaling up, Ari, they had to create a for-profit arm, which they did in 2019, but that created some real inherent tension. It created two tribes inside of OpenAI, the nonprofit idealists and the race-to-the-finish-line techies, and Altman was part of the latter camp. He wanted OpenAI to be a global leader in developing AI products, and it has been. But in doing so, the nonprofit supporters are frustrated because they think the company abandoned its founding principles. So now that Altman is coming back, that is yet another issue he's going to have to deal with, trying to unite these two feuding tribes within the most influential AI company in the world.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn with some pre-Thanksgiving drama there. Thank you for your reporting.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. 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.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.