Threat of OpenAI Staff Exodus Leaves Its Future Uncertain

The future of OpenAI hangs by a thread after more than 700 of its 770 employees signed a letter saying they may leave the company for Microsoft if the ousted chief executive, Sam Altman, was not reinstalled at the high-profile artificial intelligence start-up.

The four-person board that oversees the start-up shocked the tech industry early Friday afternoon when it removed Mr. Altman, saying they could no longer trust him. One of those four board members who voted to oust Mr. Altman then reversed course on Monday and signed the letter.

The decision capped off a frantic weekend of unexpected twists, turns and corporate jockeying that ended with Mr. Altman joining the tech giant Microsoft to start a new A.I. project. By early Monday morning, the 700 employees had signed the letter, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The upheaval leaves the future of one of the fastest-growing companies in Silicon Valley history in doubt. At a time when the industry was reeling in the wake of mass layoffs, OpenAI’s technology has fueled the creation and evolution of hundreds of start-ups that are driving job creation. Now, many of those businesses are concerned about their prospects.

“This is the debacle of the decade,” said Gaurav Oberoi, the founder of Lexion, a start-up that relies on OpenAI to help companies streamline legal, sales and vendor contracts. “It’s a lesson in how to destroy a huge amount of value overnight and their own reputation.”

OpenAI declined to comment. Emmett Shear, whom the board named as interim chief executive late on Sunday, declined to immediately comment because he was busy on another call.

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