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Chat GPT-maker Open AI fires founder Sam Altman

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The public face of the AI boom is now jobless. CEO Sam Altman co-founded OpenAI, which released the powerful chat bot ChatGPT last year. It revolutionized the tech world. But late yesterday, without providing many details, the company said he'd been fired. The announcement leaves a lot of questions unanswered. NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn is on the line to try and help us sort through some of them. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So AI and ChatGPT have gotten a lot of press, but remind us about this key person here, Sam Altman. Who is he?

ALLYN: Sure. Yeah. Sam Altman is this 38-year-old tech executive who co-founded OpenAI about eight years ago with a handful of others, including Elon Musk, actually. And the idea was to create a nonprofit research lab focused on ethically developing artificial intelligence, almost like an answer to the profit-driven ethos of big tech. And it remained mostly quiet until last year, when AI burst onto the scene, as you mentioned, with ChatGPT. It quickly became the fastest-growing app ever. It sparked debates on all sorts of industries, from publishing to education to health care, about how the technology could be harnessed to upend how we are - live and work every day.

And, you know, while ChatGPT became one of the most viral tech products in history, Sam Altman was traveling around the world and talking about AI. He testified before Congress about the need for AI regulations. He became the focal point of attacks from AI skeptics. In short, Scott, he was the most sought after and one of the most powerful executives in Silicon Valley.

DETROW: What do we know about why he was pushed out?

ALLYN: Yesterday, the company's board released a statement saying Altman, quote, "was not consistently candid in his communication with the board of directors," but they stopped short on giving details. Sam Altman was fired immediately. Now, this was a surprise to the company's investors, employees, and even Altman himself was taken aback. You know, this all circles the question, OK, what exactly did he do wrong? And that's something we just can't answer right now, Scott.

Now, I also heard from the same sources that Altman and the board got into a disagreement shortly before his ouster over the balance between keeping OpenAI product safe and pushing them out to the public as fast as possible. In other words, you know, Sam Altman wanted to keep releasing more and more of these powerful tools, and some board members were worried that he was downplaying the risk to society. But, you know, I have not confirmed that that particular disagreement is what triggered his firing. But, Scott, it's really hard to overemphasize when I say that it's the chatter of the tech industry right now.

DETROW: I mean, any sense at this moment what this means for the future of OpenAI and ChatGPT?

ALLYN: Yeah. Well, this executive, Mira Murati, will step up as interim CEO of the company. And, you know, she's long been involved in the day-to-day operations of OpenAI. This transition though, you know, it comes during a rocky time for OpenAI. It's facing a deluge of lawsuits over copyright infringement and other claims. Regulators in Washington and Europe are devising new rules about how to regulate AI. And now, of course, a dramatic firing at the top. As for Altman, he is one of the most well-connected tech leaders in Silicon Valley, so he is in talks already about his next moves. He even tweeted that he'll have more to say soon about what's next.

One last notable thing, Scott, is, you know, even though OpenAI started as this nonprofit research lab, it's now sort of an arm of Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion into the company. But Microsoft says they are not going to back away just because Altman is gone. You know, I've actually been in touch with Altman over the years, but since yesterday, he's been pretty mum. I know he has a lot going on right now, obviously. So, you know, once we figure out what really led to his firing, I will be back to fill you in.

DETROW: All right, look forward to it. That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thanks a lot.

ALLYN: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.