Emmett Shear, the interim CEO of OpenAI, may be out of a job by the end of the hour, day or week given how fast and unexpectedly things are moving at the world’s hottest hot mess artificial intelligence company. But for now, he is the person at the helm after a dramatic three days in which Sam Altman was fired on Friday with CTO Mira Murati put in to replace him, much speculation abounded about Altman returning after all, only for Altman and Greg Brockman to officially jump to OpenAI investor and partner Microsoft, and Murati to — late Sunday — get replaced by Shear.
“Today I got a call inviting me to consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to become the interim CEO of
@OpenAI,” he posted on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) in the wee hours of Monday morning.
Shear was previously a co-founder of Justin.tv and had been the CEO of its second life as Twitch until March 2023, which feels like a world away from the drama of OpenAI. Now, he’s got a lot of work ahead (if he remains in the role).
Fundraising was in the works (we heard the company has been looking to raise a lot more money, with names like SoftBank in the mix alongside financial investors and possibly even more backing from its big investor Microsoft, which has already ploughed many billions into OpenAI, if the terms could be balanced without triggering antitrust investigations). The company is in the very center of the conversation around AI regulation. There is more R&D on the roadmap. And there are of course more contracts to sign, making sure those who are playing around with GPT commit to becoming long-term customers of it.
But first thing’s first, the new CEO is starting with a business classic, a three-point plan that can be summed up as what is the issue? how do you correct it? and how do you create a benefit from it getting corrected? He needs to figure out WTF is going on and make sure it doesn’t spiral the rest of the company out of control.
In his case, in the next 30 days, he said the company plans to hire an independent investigator — which implies that there are still some unanswered questions, even inside the company, about exactly what happened. The investigator will “dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report.”
The plan then is to try to take but also bring down the temperature in the room — which also implies that there has indeed been some pushback and negative reaction not just internally, but externally as well. He will “speak to as many of our employees, partners, investors, and customers as possible, take good notes, and share the key takeaways.”
Last but not least, he will hustle hard to make sure OpenAI does not bleed customers and partners — the core of how it generates revenues — which implies that, with AI applications and the use of generative AI still very much in its hype-filled early days, is a genuine concern. In Shear’s words, OpenAI will “reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force to drive results for our customers.”
Shear double confirmed other reporting from over the weekend that whatever the issues were that lead to Altman’s removal, they were not related to safety, or at least not insofar as it was related to running the business. “I’m not crazy enough to take this job without board support for commercializing our awesome models,” he said.
Just a few hours
Shear said it took “just a few hours” for him to decide to take the job when he was offered it over the weekend. As it happened, it also took just a few hours for people to start digging up some of his spicier positions on technology and life, leading many to wonder if OpenAI’s board also spent more than just a few hours itself coming up with its succession plan.
He does not support Nazis but he did unnervingly bring them up as a better option to other risks and endings while debating hypothetical end-of-world scenarios on Twitter. People have also picked over conversations he’s had where he has tackled some other hot-button issues like women’s consent. Regardless of where you sit on his positions (and what his positions happen to be) given the spotlight on OpenAI, ethics in AI, and all kinds of controversy around the space… it’s an interesting choice for a successor.
Less controversially, but confusingly, Shear also said that he was “in favor of slowing down” AI development.
It’s unclear how much impact Shear will have on the course of AI development at the startup he now leads — and again, there is every chance that the story can change again given how fast it has moved.
But at the least, his support of stepping back from breakneck advancement raises questions about how the company’s CEO feels about OpenAI’s current commercial strategy, as laid out just the other week during the company’s first developer event when it unveiled 100 million weekly users of ChatGPT and a raft of new ways for third parties to build their own AI applications on OpenAI’s platform.
His months out from under the corporate eye of Amazon may have had Shear wandering the badlands of social media, but one thing could have made him attractive to the OpenAI board regardless was that, when needed, Shear knows how to play nice with corporate overlords.
To that end, he notes in his ‘hello’ post that “Our partnership with Microsoft remains strong, and my priority in the coming weeks will be to make sure we continue to serve all our customers well.”
Given how many employees are now threatening to move over to Microsoft, which owns just under half of OpenAI, it will be interesting to see how that friendly position shifts for the company if it really believes in staying independent of its strategic backer.