Wild Speculation Regarding the OpenAI Fiasco

First, I feel I need to make one thing clear: I'm nobody and have no special inside information. I'm just a random terminally-online guy who spends way too much time on Twitter and Hacker News. Like everyone else who fits that description, I've been obsessed with the Shakespearean drama playing out at OpenAI over the past few days and I have a theory.

To quickly summarize the events in case you've been in a coma since Friday:

  • OpenAI board members Ilya Sutskever, Adam D’Angelo, Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner voted to fire OpenAI CEO Sam Altman on Friday. OpenAI President Greg Brockman was asked to step down as chairman of the board but remain at the company. Brockman instead resigned in solidarity with Altman. CTO Mira Murati is appointed interim CTO.
  • In their official statement, the OpenAI board made reference to Altman being "not consistently candid in his communications with the board", but did not make any specific accusations or provide any evidence. Since then they have refused to elaborate.
  • OpenAI employees revolted and threatened to quit en masse unless Altman and Brockman were reinstated by 5pm Saturday. There is a large outpouring of support for Altman on Twitter including from Murati.
  • The 5pm deadline passed with no word from the board. Altman goes to OpenAI as a visitor on Sunday to discuss his reinstatement. Everyone assumes the board will cave.
  • Instead, the board announces they've appointed Twitch co-founder Emmet Shear the new interim CEO.
  • Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, OpenAI's largest investor and customer, announces that Altman and Brockman will join Microsoft to lead their AI research.
  • The OpenAI employee revolt continues with nearly all of the 770 employees signing a letter threatening to resign unless Altman is reinstated, including Ilya Sutskever, who had initially voted to fire Altman. Sutskever issues a public apology on Twitter and joins team Altman. Former OpenAI employees are welcomed to also join Microsoft (and just about any other company in Silicon Valley)

The big question everyone wants to know is why the board fired Sam in the first place. A lot of the initial speculation is that the coup was led by Ilya over AI safety concerns, but that seems unlikely now given how quickly he switched sides. The stated reason is vague. Interim CEO Shear issued a statement explicitly saying a few things that are not the reason, like safety or malfeasance, but not what the reason is. Further confusing is why Microsoft was kept in the dark.

Here's what I think. Adam D'Angelo's company Quora released an AI chatbot product called Poe in February 2023. Many people have pointed out that the recent OpenAI dev day announcement regarding custom ChatGPTs has effectively neutered Poe. Perhaps D'Angelo joined OpenAI's board thinking that he'd be getting a front row seat to all the cutting-edge research produced by this non-profit, which he would then have the first chance to commercialize. Maybe Sam implied this or even explicitly offered it. (not consistently candid...) Maybe not.

When OpenAI formed a for-profit subsidiary and started commercializing their research on their own, D'Angelo got annoyed. When OpenAI killed his product with custom ChatGPTs, he got really annoyed. He saw his shot at untold billions by being first-to-market with AI products based on OpenAI's research due to his inside position on the board go up in smoke.

So, he hatched a plan. He'd boot Altman, return OpenAI to its non-profit roots, and claim all the commercialization glory for his own company, Quora (and some billions for himself). This would explain why Microsoft wasn't in the loop, since they are also commercializing OpenAI's research, and doing a much better job of it.

D'Angelo takes the plan to McCauley and Toner and offers them equity in Quora if they join him in the coup, but they need one more vote. Altman and Brockman are close and are obviously not with them. So they go to Ilya. They spin a story about how OpenAI has abandoned its original non-profit mission and is becoming too commercial. OpenAI will never live up to its ideal to create AI that benefits all of humanity. It will become just another heartless tech company with Altman at the helm. Ilya's a true believer, so he's swayed by this and begrudgingly agrees to fire Sam to save the soul of OpenAI.

Votes secured, they execute the coup, but it all falls apart when the employees revolt. Satya Nadella strolls in like Dad finding out his toddlers have decided to repaint the living room and demands to know what the hell is going on. Ilya realizes he's been played and squeals. I imagine Satya lines them up and slaps them across the face all at once Three Stooges style before sweeping up the pieces of OpenAI and depositing them in Microsoft's coffers.

Maybe that's what happened. Like I said I have no idea. This is all speculation. All I have been able to determine with my nonexistent investigative journalism skills is that Quora made "Restated Stock" Filing in Delaware on November 17, 2023 at 1:15pm. The timing is interesting. Was that Quora shares being allocated to McCauley and Toner as soon as their votes were secure? Quora's a private company, so I can't see what the filing says, but you can look up the fact that it was made on Delaware's entity search (costs $20).

Entity Report - Quora