OpenAI employees threaten to quit after Sam Altman's firing 0:32
(CNN) -- A sudden, large-scale leadership crisis at OpenAI has led to a turnover of the artificial intelligence company's CEOs, with tech entrepreneur Emmett Shear becoming the latest to take the helm on Monday.
A few days earlier, OpenAI's board of directors abruptly ousted then-CEO Sam Altman and named chief technology officer Mira Murati interim CEO. Over the weekend, this "Game of Thrones"-style drama raised many questions about Altman's fate. But by Monday morning, Altman had accepted a position at Microsoft, the tech giant with a major investment in OpenAI, Shear had been named interim CEO, and hundreds of OpenAI employees, including Murati, were calling for the board's resignation and threatening to follow Altman to Microsoft.
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The surprising events of the past 60 hours raise deep questions about the future of OpenAI, the company, with its unusual hybrid non-profit and for-profit structure, which unveiled ChatGPT to the world and sparked a global debate about the promises and dangers of generative AI.
Now, the 40-year-old Shear, co-founder of video game streaming company Twitch, will be in charge of picking up the pieces of OpenAI. On Monday, Shear announced that he had accepted the interim CEO position because he believes OpenAI "is one of the most important companies out there today."
Whether he can remain so depends on the decisions Shear makes next.
After leaving Twitch earlier this year to care for his newborn son, Shear takes the reins of a hollowed-out company that has lost key co-founders, senior employees, and is at risk of losing many more. He'll have to deal with a potentially moribund management team that voted to trigger the crisis and who supposedly saw OpenAI's hypothetical collapse as a beneficial outcome that would serve the company's own mission.
While pledging to investigate the events that led to Altman's firing, Shear must not only refocus a depleted team and save the company's position as a leading AI developer in an industry that is radically changing with Altman's departure, but also redefine what OpenAI stands for in a broad global debate about the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence and how to regulate it.
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"When the board shared the situation and asked me to take over, I didn't make the decision lightly," Shear said in a message on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. "Ultimately, I felt I had a duty to help if I could."
Despite being known for launching a social media company that was acquired by Amazon in 2014 for $970 million, Shear has become an increasingly vocal commentator on AI, and some of his previous writings and commentary offer a window into his management style and philosophy on the risks of artificial intelligence.
A skeptic of regulation, except in AI
This Yale-educated computer scientist, entrepreneur, and investor describes himself as a common advisor. He has spent years guiding budding tech companies as a part-time partner at Y Combinator, the startup accelerator that Altman once ran. He is fond of giving business advice in X, among other things about video games and science fiction books.
In a 2021 thread reflecting on the 23th anniversary of Twitch's launch, Shear posted <> messages distilling what he'd learned into brief management lessons, such as that "for internet companies, growth is more important than profits." He also wrote that "there are only five growth strategies, and your product probably only fits into one."
In more recent podcast appearances, Shear has combined his penchant for high-level abstract thinking with a penchant for colorful analogies to chess, Star Trek, and early human evolution to articulate his views on AI, particularly artificial general intelligence, an advanced technology that is still years away but which many AI researchers believe could be the end result of their work.
Shear has said he resembles many of his Silicon Valley colleagues in generally favoring limited regulation of the technology, or regulations that can better unlock the promises of innovation. But he has also argued that, in the specific case of AI, future improvements in the technology are likely to happen so quickly and, in the long run, independent of any human intervention, that they could easily overtake their creators.
"You will be able to point the thing that we have built towards itself... that loop is going to get tighter and tighter and tighter, and tighter and faster, until it can fully self-improve," Shear said in June, outlining his concerns. "That kind of intelligence is an inherently very dangerous thing, because intelligence is power."
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Concerns about the future of AI
Even if artificial intelligence doesn't become smarter than human, Shear has argued, it could still wreak havoc in the same way people do.
"Imagine 100,000 of the smartest people you know, all running at 100 times the speed of real time and able to communicate with each other instantaneously through telepathy," he said in September. "Those 100,000 people can conquer the world. They don't have to be smarter than a human."
These views seem to dovetail with concerns about AI safety that may have reportedly been a factor in Altman's firing by OpenAI's board, though Shear denied Sunday that Altman's firing was "for any specific disagreements about safety" and that "his reasoning was completely different from that."
Still, Hear's prospects lay the groundwork for OpenAI to take a more cautious approach in its post-Altman future, which joins Microsoft. And that raises its own set of questions about how Shear can manage OpenAI's relationship with Microsoft. Each has reiterated its commitment to the other, as part of a deal that has seen OpenAI's technology incorporated into the Bing search engine and Microsoft investing billions in OpenAI.
But with Altman and his allies working internally at Microsoft, Shear, and whoever succeeds him as OpenAI's permanent CEO, may be eclipsed forever.