Sam Altman reportedly has no equity in OpenAI, a strange move for a tech founder, but new reporting from Wired this weekend shows the CEO would profit from an OpenAI deal to buy AI chips. OpenAI signed a previously unknown deal back in 2019 to spend $51 million on advanced chips from a startup Sam Altman is reportedly personally invested in. Altman’s web of private business interests seems to have played some role in his recent firing according to the report.
OpenAI’s board fired Sam Altman last month, calling him inconsistently candid and hindering its ability to safely develop artificial general intelligence, but not providing a real reason. Everyone’s looking for the smoking gun, and Altman’s business dealings affecting his responsibilities as OpenAI’s CEO could be what’s behind the board’s decision. However, it’s unclear, and Altman is back at the helm while the board that fired him is gone.
The startup, Rain AI, is building computer chips that replicate the human brain, which promises to be the next phase for building AI. Neuromorphic processing units, or NPUs, claim to be 100 times more powerful than Nvidia’s GPUs, which OpenAI and Microsoft are currently beholden to. While NPUs are not on the market yet, OpenAI has a deal to get first dibs.
Altman personally invested more than $1 million in Rain in 2018, according to The Information, and he’s listed on Rain’s website as a backer. OpenAI’s CEO is invested in dozens of startups, however. He previously led the startup incubator, Y Combinator, and became one of the most prominent dealmakers in Silicon Valley.
The AI chip company Rain has had no shortage of drama in the last week. The Biden administration forced a Saudi venture capital firm to sell its $25 million stake in Rain AI, just last week. Gordon Wilson, the founder and CEO of Rain, stepped down last week as well, without providing a reason. Wilson posted his resignation on LinkedIn about the same time that Sam Altman was reinstated at OpenAI.
The blurry lines between Sam Altman’s private investments and OpenAI business could have been a key reason for his firing, but we still don’t have a clear explanation from the board. A former board member who fired Sam Altman, Helen Toner, gave us her best hint yet as she stepped down last week. Toner said the firing was not about slowing down OpenAI’s progress towards AGI in a Nov. 29 tweet. Toner says the firing was about “the board’s ability to effectively supervise the company,” which sounds like it has more to do with business disclosures than breakthroughs around AGI.