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What went down at OpenAI: A theory of the case
One theory of the case, popular on the social media platform X, is that the board was a bunch of clowns; they fired Sam for no really good reason beyond some ongoing tensions around company direction. Co-Founder Ilya Sutskever perhaps felt a bit left out.
I have no doubt that there ongoing tensions, but whether or not Ilya felt out, I happen not to like the clownish board theory for three reasons.
First, I know two of the members of the board, one quite well, and both strike me as bright, sober people. (Full disclosure: one of them led the seed round in my first company.) Neither seems impetuous to me.
The second is that nobody does something that dramatic without some kind of serious motivation; already it looks like the planned $86B valuation might not go through, per The Information. A lot of shareholders could be pissed; unless there was a smoking gun, the litigation could be endless.
The third is the apparent abruptness of it all; according to Axios, Microsoft was warned only a moment in advance. Why burn bridges with your lead investor, unless you felt like you absolutely had no choice?
So here’s my theory about what happened. So far as I know it fits all the facts I have seen.
Which of course doesn’t make it true; it’s still just a guess. But here goes:
Sam “has been telling investors that he is planning to launch a new venture” (for how long he has been doing this, I wish I knew). Possibly this new venture could the collaboration he was discussing with Jony Ive, possibly not.
At some point the board came to believe this new company would undermine the nonprofit’s mission, and also discovered, perhaps e.g., from an email that someone got hold of, that he was not candid with them about important details—in ways that shattered trust. And in ways that could be very clearly documented. (In my view, without some sort of documentation, they wouldn’t have pulled the trigger).
Once they found out, they felt there was no turning back, regardless of the cost to the company.
Could this be what happened? Have I missed something? Any other theories? Feel free to comment below.
Gary Marcus prefers to write about science, and even has something new to say about science, but will have to save it for another day. For now he is just as startled by Friday’s drama as everyone else.