Turmoil at OpenAI and three challenges for its new CEO

The fallout following the ousting of former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has left his replacement, Emmett Shear, with an uphill battle to wrestle control of the company

Emmett Shear Openais New Ceo
Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear has been appointed as the new interim CEO of OpenAI

After an eventful 72 hours in techland, Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear has been appointed as the new interim CEO of OpenAI. In doing so, he became the AI research company’s third chief executive in as many days, following the ousting of Sam Altman by the OpenAI board.

In a company statement issued on Friday, the board concluded that Altman, who co-founded OpenAI in 2015 and served as its CEO from 2019, “was not consistently candid in his communications”. In the statement, the board also re-emphasised OpenAI’s mission: Tto ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity”.

Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, was initially appointed as interim CEO. However, the removal of Altman and Greg Brockman as chairman of the board sparked a backlash among OpenAI’s employees, with almost all of its 770 staff, including Murati, signing an open letter threatening to leave unless the board resigns.

Shear will now be tasked with pulling the fractured organisation – which he described as “one of the most important companies currently in existence” – back together. If he is to succeed, these are the three things Shear should focus on.

Three challenges facing Emmett Shear as OpenAI CEO

Regaining trust

Top of the list will be gaining the trust of OpenAI’s staff and regaining that of its investors. In a three-point action plan, shared by Shear on X (formerly Twitter), he committed to hiring an independent investigator to “dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report”.

Many of the details surrounding Altman’s dismissal remain murky. The remaining four members of the OpenAI board have a duty to ensure the company remains aligned to its mission to produce safe artificial general intelligence. So far, they have not clarified their reasoning for the decision. 

This has given rise to speculation within the industry, as Wilson Chan, CEO of Permutable AI notes: “One plausible theory centres around the rapid commercialisation of OpenAI’s technology under Altman’s leadership. Some argue that this acceleration may have outpaced the board’s comfort level, raising concerns about the responsible development and deployment of AI.”

Shear has sought to quash these rumours, stating that the board did not remove Altman over disagreements around AI safety, adding: “It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal has been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust.”

With the majority of OpenAI’s staff now in active revolt against the board, Shear will have to move quickly to improve this relationship. Clarifying the reasons for Altman’s dismissal and the desired new direction for the company will be key. A prompt and open independent investigation is a good start.

However it is not just staff who Shear has to win over. Many of OpenAI’s investors had pushed for Altman to be reinstated as CEO after he had been fired. Microsoft, which reportedly holds a 49% stake in the company, had also backed Altman and moved quickly to hire him, Brockman and other OpenAI staff members to head up a new “advanced AI research” team. 

Technology analyst Ben Thompson describes this as a “phenomenal outcome for Microsoft” and likens it to acquiring OpenAI for “$0 and zero risk of an antitrust lawsuit”. However, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has also stressed the continued importance of its relationship with OpenAI, stating that he looks forward to “getting to know Emmett Shear and OAI’s new leadership team and working with them”. 

This should give Shear some reassurances in the short term but, Chan adds: “Microsoft is likely to see Altman’s departure as an opportunity to exert more influence over OpenAI’s direction, and the company may even seek to acquire OpenAI outright in the future.”

Rebuilding the team

The departure of a number of employees from OpenAI has left Shear with the task of rebuilding the company. And there is the potential for many more staff to leave as rival companies prepare to poach the top talent and internal protests against the board’s actions continue. 

The chief operating officer, CTO and chief strategy officer are among a number of OpenAI employees to tweet “OpenAI is nothing without its people”, in an expression of solidarity with Altman and Brockman. OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who is a member of the board that decided to fire Altman, has also now backtracked, expressing his regret at the outcome and signing the letter requesting the resignation of the board.

This presents Shear with both a challenge and an opportunity. It will be important to retain some of the figures that have helped to develop products like ChatGPT and made OpenAI one of the most influential technology companies in the world. However, Shear will also benefit from having some allies in key positions as he navigates the ongoing tumult. Any departures from OpenAI’s current leadership team will give Shear the opportunity to replace them with people who have worked alongside him before.

Prioritising safety

Concerns around generative AI’s rapid advancement continue to mount and countries around the world are currently exploring the best means to regulate the technology, without stifling innovation. 

These fears may also be playing on the mind of the OpenAI board, who reiterated the mission of ensuring AI benefits all in its announcement of the leadership transition. Their initial selection of Mira as interim CEO was partly because of her experience leading OpenAI’s research and safety functions. 

Shear is known to be fearful of the risks of AI and has been quoted as saying that the existential threat it poses to humanity “should cause you to shit your pants”. He also shared his belief that AI development should be slowed by between 10% and 20%. 

This will be music to the ears of safety advocates in the industry who claim that companies like OpenAI are moving too quickly. However, his cautious outlook will not do much to appease the AI accelerationists within his new company’s ranks. Shear will have to strike the right balance in his new role. 

Will Sam Altman return as OpenAI CEO?

Whether Shear is given sufficient time to enact any of these changes is another question entirely. He could well be left presiding over an empty office if OpenAI’s staff follow through with their threat to quit the company en masse. 

There is also still the possibility that Altman is reinstated as chief executive of the company. A lot of pressure is being applied to the board, both internally and externally and, with one board member having already reversed his decision, it only requires two more to change their minds. Even Nadella seemed unsure who would be CEO in 24 hours time when questioned on Bloomberg TV. “I will leave it with OpenAI and its board,” he said. 

It all amounts to an extremely challenging situation for Shear. The backing of the board alone may not be enough to see him through this unfolding crisis.