Analyst reaction to OpenAI turmoil: Shrewd move by Microsoft

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The trick now for Microsoft Corp. will be navigating its continuing business relationship with OpenAI while at the same time harboring its exiled leadership members, says Brian Jackson, principal research director at Info-Tech Research Group, following the stunning news that OpenAI’s former CEO Sam Altman and company co-founder Greg Brockman are heading to Redmond, Wash.

“Over the weekend, we saw turmoil at OpenAI spill over and impact its competitive outlook as the AI market leader, as the board fired Sam Altman from the CEO role, then we saw Microsoft react quickly to protect its multi-billion-dollar investment in AI by hiring Sam Altman and giving him a CEO title,” Jackson said today.

He pointed out that not only did Microsoft install Altman as CEO of its new advanced AI research team, “but many of Altman’s allies at OpenAI are tagging along for the ride. Microsoft’s bet on OpenAI as the leading AI provider of the future is a big one that goes beyond the substantial money it’s put into the firm.”

According to Jackson, Microsoft moved quickly over the past year to “position itself as the enterprise partner for access to OpenAI’s large language models, facilitated through Azure cloud. It’s also integrating OpenAI’s models into its core products, from Office 365 to Bing to Windows.

“By hiring Altman to pursue AI research with much of the same team he had at OpenAI, they’ve blocked out a significant competitive threat of another tech firm like Google hiring Altman, or Altman starting a new AI firm that would compete with OpenAI.”

Thomas Randall, advisory director with the research firm, described the “surprising turn of events” over the past 72 hours as “signalling a significant shift in the artificial intelligence frontier.”

The OpenAI board’s decision, driven by concerns over Altman’s lack of transparency and the tension between OpenAI’s non-profit ideals and its for-profit pursuits, highlights the complexities of steering a pioneering organization in the fast-paced and ethically nuanced field of AI, he said, adding, “This move, necessitated by a need for compliance and safety in AI deployment, not only reflects the internal struggles within OpenAI but also mirrors the broader challenges faced by leaders in balancing innovation with responsible governance in the ever-evolving landscape of generative AI.”

Scott Bickley, advisory research lead at Info-Tech, said that “Microsoft’s strategic foresight in investing approximately US$12 billion in OpenAI for a 49 per cent stake has positioned them at the forefront of the AI race, and it’s now playing out interestingly.

“As a bonus, much of this investment effectively cycles back to Microsoft for Azure spend on their AI training and inference platforms. The recent firing of Sam Altman from OpenAI has stirred significant upheaval.”

Microsoft, he said, is “playing a smart game here – they win either way. Let OpenAI go slow, and have Altman speed things up at Microsoft. It’s kind of like what happened with Steve Jobs in ’85 – Altman didn’t get his old job back, but he’s still landing on his feet, maybe even better off.”

In a research note posted today, Ray Wang, the CEO of Constellation Research, wrote that the “balance between too much governance and not enough innovation was the challenge OpenAI faced. This was a very immature board with members who had never built companies, never moved ideology to commercialization, nor had any pragmatic board experience.”

The board’s big worries, said Wang, were ownership of data, the impact of untested models, unwanted bias detection and effective altruism.

“Sam’s move to accelerate commercialization was the right next steps. A war between the go-fast folks and the go-right folks led to the ouster. However, the board’s childish approach to letting him go was somewhere between borderline negligence to fiduciary responsibly and the undue influence of effective altruism movement, where there is a belief AI will kill us all.

“Moreover, OpenAI’s valuation of US$89 billion will probably be cut while Microsoft picks up US$89 billion in valuation for very little investment poaching Sam and Greg. Kudos to Satya Nadella for saving the market cap of Microsoft and gaining an army of AI Talent.”

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