OpenAI is on its third CEO in three days, after appointing Emmett Shear as interim CEO, less than 72 hours after its board ousted former CEO Sam Altman in a shock move on Friday Nov. 17, claiming he had not been “consistently candid in his communications with the board.”
The company said on Friday it was replacing Altman with chief technology officer Mira Murati but over the weekend, multiple publications reported that Altman was in talks with the OpenAI board to return as CEO. After the departures of Altman and chairman and president Greg Brockman, who resigned, the board comprises chief scientist Ilya Sutskever and three independent directors: Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner of D.C.-based think tank the Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Bloomberg reported that Murati was negotiating for Altman and Brockman to return to OpenAI, and that Microsoft boss Satya Nadella was playing a central role in the talks.
The negotiations ultimately came to nothing, and on Sunday evening Pacific time, reports emerged that OpenAI was appointing Shear as CEO. Shortly after, Nadella announced that Altman, Brockman, and other OpenAI employees would be joining Microsoft to lead a new AI team. At the same time, Nadella reiterated Microsoft’s commitment to its partnership with OpenAI. “We look forward to getting to know Emmett Shear and OAI's new leadership team and working with them,” he said in an X post.
“I took this job because I believe that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence,” Shear wrote in a post on X. “Ultimately I felt that I had a duty to help if I could.”
Shear is already facing his first challenge in his new role. On Monday, more than 500 OpenAI employees signed an open letter threatening to move to Altman’s new Microsoft unit unless the board resigns and reinstates Altman and Brockman. (OpenAI has roughly 770 employees according to The Wall Street Journal). The list of signatories included chief scientist and board member Sutskever, Murati, and vice president of global affairs Anna Makanju. "Your conduct has made it clear you did not have the competence to oversee OpenAI," the letter said, addressing OpenAI’s board.
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Also on Monday morning, Sutskever posted on X to express his regret. “I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions,” he wrote. “I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we've built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.”
Who is Emmett Shear?
Shear is widely known as the former CEO of video game streaming service Twitch. The Yale graduate was a member of the first class on storied startup incubator Y Combinator and became a part-time partner at Y Combinator in 2011. (Altman was president of Y Combinator from 2014 to 2019.)
At Y Combinator, Shear built a calendar application with his childhood friend Justin Kan, later selling their business to eBay for $250,000. In 2006, Shear, Kan, and two others strapped a camera to Kan’s head 24/7 and began offering a 24/7 live stream of Kan’s life, calling it Justin.tv. Kan stopped streaming his life after eight months, but Shear and the rest of the founding team pivoted, turning Justin.tv into a live video streaming platform.
As gaming became increasingly popular on Justin.tv, the leadership team decided to spin-off a streaming site specifically for gaming—TwitchTV, which launched in 2011. In 2014, Amazon acquired twitch for $970 million. Shear remained as CEO at Twitch until he resigned in March 2023.
Shear’s plan for OpenAI
In his post on X Shear outlined a three-point plan for the next 30 days, which included hiring an independent investigator to produce a report on the events leading up to Altman’s departure, writing “it’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust.”
Shear’s other two priorities are to “speak to as many of our employees, partners, investors, and customers as possible, take good notes, and share the key takeaways,” and to “Reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force to drive results for our customers.”
“Depending on the results [of] everything we learn from these, I will drive changes in the organization — up to and including pushing strongly for significant governance changes if necessary,” he said, adding that he intended to begin rolling these out during the first 30 days of his tenure.
Little is known about why the board decided to replace Altman, but Shear addressed speculation about the reasons, without giving much away. “The board did *not* remove Sam over any specific disagreement on safety, their reasoning was completely different from that,” he wrote.
According to OpenAI’s charter, its mission is to “ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—by which we mean highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work—benefits all of humanity.” OpenAI’s idiosyncratic “capped non-profit” governance structure reflects this mission.
The charter states that OpenAI’s “primary fiduciary duty is to humanity,” rather than to investors. The board oversees OpenAI non-profit, which controls the capped for-profit arm that OpenAI set up in 2019 to facilitate fundraising. Most of the board members are independent and do not own equity in OpenAI. A warning to investors on OpenAI’s website on OpenAI’s website says that it would be wise to view investments in OpenAI “in the spirit of a donation.”
Shear himself has spoken publicly multiple times about the existential risks he believes advanced AI systems could pose. But he appears to be taking a business-led approach in his new role. “I'm not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models,” he said in the X post.
“I have nothing but respect for what Sam and the entire OpenAI team have built,” he wrote. “It’s not just an incredible research project and software product, but an incredible company. I’m here because I know that, and I want to do everything in my power to protect it and grow it further.”
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Write to Will Henshall at email@example.com