Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (right) greets OpenAI CEO Sam Altman during the OpenAI DevDay event on Nov. 6, 2023 in San Francisco, Calif. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
(CNN) -- The leadership crisis that plagued OpenAI for nearly a week ended almost as abruptly as it began: with a concise and cryptic announcement from the company that could have huge repercussions for its future.
In a way, the result was a return to the status quo: Sam Altman would be reinstated as CEO, and the company's deep and lucrative business partnership with Microsoft, which acquired a $13 billion stake in the company even as it develops its own AI, remains intact.
In other ways, however, the deal remains a watershed moment for OpenAI and the field of artificial intelligence in general.
The turbulent week seems to have resulted in a big win for Altman personally; advocates for widespread adoption of AI; and some of the country's most established elites. And it came at the expense of AI skeptics who many say failed in their attempt to take a principled stance in favor of caution about the technology's long-term risks.
Sam Altman: A clear winner of the whole debacle is, of course, Altman himself. Unceremoniously ousted from his position on Friday, Altman quickly garnered the support of the vast majority of OpenAI's staff, who signed what was essentially a pledge of loyalty that underscores the deep rift between him and the board of directors. His return to OpenAI, triumphant over the board that summarily fired him, reflects a kind of personal vindication that will likely reinforce, for better or worse, his carefully and intentionally constructed image as a charismatic visionary single-handedly unlocking the secrets of the universe.
Microsoft: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sought to downplay the tech giant's role in the crisis, insisting on Monday — ahead of Altman's re-election — that whatever happens to OpenAI, "nothing changes." Microsoft's priority, Nadella said, was to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of AI technology to its own customers, whether that meant Microsoft's hiring of Altman or his reinstatement at OpenAI.
But Microsoft isn't a selfless party, having committed billions to OpenAI in a multi-year partnership that led to the tech giant integrating ChatGPT into Bing search and other Microsoft products. Now, Microsoft is poised to gain even more clout. Nadella hinted at this reality on Monday, noting that if Altman were to return as OpenAI's chief executive, Microsoft would have a very strong opinion on how the AI startup is governed.
"One thing I will make very, very clear is that we will never again be in a situation where we are caught like that," Nadella said. "If we go back to operating like we did on Friday, we're going to make sure that we're very, very clear that governance is arranged in a way that we really have more security and ensures that we don't have any surprises."
Whether that might mean having an observer on the board of directors or a full-fledged seat on OpenAI's board of directors, he said, is a bridge that "we will cross... if it happens."
New board members: By appointing former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to OpenAI's board of directors, the deal aims to further align the company with the country's wealthiest and most influential elite.
Taylor isn't just a former CEO of one of the biggest companies in the tech industry. He is a former chief technology officer of Facebook, and in 2022, as chairman of Twitter, he successfully forced Elon Musk to go ahead with his $44 billion acquisition of the social media company, in a momentous corporate maneuver.
Meanwhile, Summers is the former president of Harvard University who sparked controversy for suggesting that "innate differences" are the reason for the underrepresentation of women in scientific professions. The comment was widely criticized for being sexist and Summers later apologized.
The Push to Curb AI Development: OpenAI's Board Members Ousted. In the same way that the deal breathes new life into the myth of Altman, it also gives a tailwind to the ideology it represents: the belief in the rapid commercialization of generative AI. Given that some of the apparent architects of Altman's ouster were ousted, a casualty of the affair may be the perspectives those board members defended. This seems to include a deep fear about the long-term, potentially even existential, risks of AI.
In the letter signed by hundreds of OpenAI employees threatening to resign, employees reported that board members claimed that allowing the company to be destroyed "would be consistent with the mission" of OpenAI, which is to "ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity."
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The fact that OpenAI's board of directors apparently believed that the destruction of the company would benefit society reflects the concerns of a vocal camp in the AI field that has called for pauses in AI development, more research to "align" AI with human-centric values, and concerns about the unbridled power of a truly sentient superintelligence. Emmett Shear, whom the board named interim CEO of OpenAI for two days, also expressed similar concerns. In the aftermath of the leadership crisis, some have argued that the result is also a defeat for effective altruism, the movement that some members of OpenAI's board of directors are said to be affiliated with.
OpenAI doesn't seem to be on the verge of an all-out AI sprint that completely ignores risk. Summers expressed his opinion on the short-term impacts of AI on work. And having captivated U.S. lawmakers by calling for AI regulation, Altman will likely remain a prominent figure in the global debate over rules for artificial intelligence.
So, deserved or not, the dispute appears to have caused long-term damage to the credibility of certain deep AI skeptics, and improved the fortunes of the world's Microsofts and Altmans pushing for artificial intelligence into the hands of the public. And that may have incalculable knock-on effects for the development of AI in the years to come.