Sam Altman explains how being fired as OpenAI CEO was a ‘blessing in disguise’

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has had some time to reflect on being fired by the board last month. While he’s back in his role after a corporate drama for the ages, the lessons he learned from the experience, despite the “painful cost,” were important, he told Trevor Noah on a Thursday episode of the What Now? podcast. 

“I’m still a little bit in shock and a little bit just trying to pick up the pieces,” Altman admitted. “I’m sure as I have time to sit and process this I’ll have a lot more feelings about it.” 

Last month, OpenAI’s nonprofit board abruptly fired Altman, providing only vague reasons. That blindsided among others Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, whose company has invested billions into the ChatGPT maker. After five tumultuous days, it became clear that Altman would be reinstated and the board revamped.

Noah, pointing out that Altman had just been named CEO of the Year by Time magazine and would wield considerable power in shaping the future, said:

“One thing I would implore you to have is continue to remember that feeling you had when you were fired as you’re creating a technology that’s gonna put many people in a similar position, because I see you have that humanity in you, and I hope as you create you’ll be constantly thinking about that.”

Altman, who was fired on a Friday last month, replied to Noah:

“You know what I did early Saturday morning when I couldn’t sleep? I wrote down, ‘What can I learn about this that will help me be better when other people go through a similar thing and blame me like I’m blaming the board right now?’”

While opinions differ, some believe that the adoption of artificial intelligence will lead to widespread job losses. Altman has frequently warned lawmakers and others over the past year about the need to prepare for job losses AI might cause, which he believes will hit some people more than others.

“We are really going to have to do something about this transition,” he said at the Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference in October. “We need to jointly be architects of the future.”

At the same event, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, one of OpenAI’s earliest backers, said that within 10 years AI will be able to “do 80% of 80% of all jobs that we know of today.” 

“There will come a point where no job is needed,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk told British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the UK AI Safety Summit last month. “One of the challenges in the future will be how do we find meaning in life.” 

Brad Gerstner, CEO of investment firm Altimeter Capital, has also issued stark warnings. “AI is going to be the largest displacement of human labor in the history of capitalism,” he said on the Art of Investing podcast last month. “There’s gonna be a lot of disruption that will cause a lot of anger. A lot of people will feel left out of the system.”

Altman, as his response to Noah suggests, seems well aware of this. Reflecting further upon being fired last month, he added:

“There’s a lot of useful single lessons, but the empathy I gained out of this whole experience and my recompilation of values for sure was a blessing in disguise. It was at a painful cost, but I’m happy to have had the experience in that sense.”

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