To truly understand the events of the past 48 hours—the shocking, sudden ousting of OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, arguably the figurehead of the generative-AI revolution, followed by reports that the company is now in talks to bring him back—one must understand that OpenAI is not a technology company. At least, not like other epochal companies of the internet age, such as Meta, Google, and Microsoft.
OpenAI was deliberately structured to resist the values that drive much of the tech industry—a relentless pursuit of scale, a build-first-ask-questions-later approach to launching consumer products. It was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit dedicated to the creation of artificial general intelligence, or AGI, that should benefit “humanity as a whole.” (AGI, in the company’s telling, would be advanced enough to outperform any person at “most economically valuable work”—just the kind of cataclysmically powerful tech that demands a responsible steward.) In this conception, OpenAI would operate more like a research facility or a think tank. The company’s charter bluntly states that OpenAI’s “primary fiduciary duty is to humanity,” not to investors or even employees.
That model didn’t exactly last. In 2019, OpenAI launched a subsidiary with a “capped profit” model that could raise money, attract top talent, and inevitably build commercial products. But the nonprofit board maintained total control. This corporate minutiae is central to the story of OpenAI’s meteoric rise and Altman’s shocking fall. Altman’s dismissal by OpenAI’s board on Friday was the culmination of a power struggle between the company’s two ideological extremes—one group born from Silicon Valley techno optimism, energized by rapid commercialization; the other steeped in fears that AI represents an existential risk to humanity and must be controlled with extreme caution. For years, the two sides managed to coexist, with some bumps along the way.