Departure of OpenAI’s lead scientist Ilya Sutskever sparks curiosity about his insight and vision for the organization’s future.

Sam Altman and Ilya Sutskever leaving OpenAI

Sam Altman and Ilya Sutskever engaged in dialogue at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv in June 2023.
Credit: JACK GUEZ / Getty Images

Ilya Sutskever is departing from OpenAI, and we are left with questions. One question, in particular.

In a statement released on X on Tuesday evening, the chief scientist of the company mentioned that he chose to resign from his position.

“The journey of the company has been truly remarkable, and I am certain that under the guidance of @sama, @gdb, @miramurati, and now, led by the exceptional research leadership of @merettm, OpenAI will develop AGI that is both secure and advantageous. It was a privilege and an honor to have collaborated, and I will deeply miss everyone,” Sutskever expressed, revealing that his next venture is a project “that holds great personal significance” for him, with further details to be revealed “in due course.”

CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, also acknowledged the departure, referring to Sutskever as “undoubtedly one of the foremost intellects of our era.”

“OpenAI owes much of its success to him. Despite his decision to pursue something of personal importance, I am perpetually appreciative of his contributions here and dedicated to carrying forward the mission we initiated together. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked closely with such a genuinely brilliant mind and an individual so dedicated to shaping a brighter future for humanity,” he articulated.

Altman further mentioned that Jakub Pachocki, the director of research at OpenAI, will assume the role of chief scientist.

While both Altman and Sutskever hinted that the reason for Sutskever’s departure is his desire to explore a project that is personally significant (both using the same exact wording), it’s difficult not to associate this decision with OpenAI’s recent leadership turmoil, during which Altman was briefly removed from his position at the company, with Sutskever supporting this move at first (before retracting and expressing deep remorse for Altman’s dismissal).

The circumstances appeared so suspicious that the internet transformed the situation into a meme. Elon Musk, once an investor in OpenAI but now a critic, referenced the question “What did Ilya see,” suggesting the (conspiracy?) notion that Sutskever witnessed something troubling in Altman’s leadership, leading him to initially endorse Altman’s removal. This query was humorously or not, promptly posed in response to both Sutskever and Altman’s statements on X.

It’s not only Sutskever who has left; Jan Leike, the researcher who co-led OpenAI’s Superalignment team focusing on the challenges associated with “maneuvering and supervising” AI surpassing human intelligence, has also departed from the organization. Early on Wednesday, he simply stated, “I have resigned.”

Musk elaborated on his concerns regarding OpenAI in a legal action against the company, in which he was once an investor. In the legal filing, he demands that OpenAI revert to being a nonprofit entity, arguing that the latest AI model of the company is too influential to be (essentially) controlled by Microsoft, which possesses a significant stake in OpenAI. Sutskever’s standpoint on this matter remains uncertain.

Given the tone of the statements from Sutskever and Altman, it is improbable that we will (promptly) unravel the details behind Sutskever’s exit from OpenAI. Nonetheless, it will be intriguing to discover the nature of Sutskever’s “personally significant” new project.

Despite the internal upheaval within OpenAI, the organization seems to be on a positive course, having recently introduced its most advanced publicly accessible AI model to date, GPT-4o.

Evan Brooks

Evan is a seasoned reporter with an insatiable curiosity for the latest gadgets and breakthroughs in science and tech.

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