Meet OpenAI cofounder Ilya Sutskever. He supported, then regretted ousting Sam Altman

  • Ilya Sutskever, chief scientist at OpenAI, has apologized for his role in Sam Altman's ousting.

  • Sutskever and Altman co-founded OpenAI in 2016 with the help of Elon Musk.

  • He has worked for some of the most prominent names in artificial intelligence for the last decade.

OpenAI's Ilya Sutskever — who cofounded OpenAI with Sam Altman in 2015 — played a role in kicking the now-former CEO out of the company.

The chief scientist is a member of the board that made the decision to fire Altman. The board had said that it "no longer has confidence" in Altman's ability to lead OpenAI, and said that he was "not consistently candid in his communications."

But a few days later, Sutskever expressed his remorse for being involved in ousting Altman. And he's now one of more than 600 OpenAI employees who signed an open letter threatening to quit unless the board resigns and re-appointes Altman as CEO.

"I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions," Sutskever said in an X post. "I never intended to harm OpenAI."

Here's how Sutskever went from working at Google to a leading role at OpenAI.

Ilya Sutskever was born in Soviet-era Russia in 1986.

Cathedral of St. Basil on Red Square.
Sutskever spent the first five years of his life in Russia. He's now 37.Galen Rowell/Getty Images

The 37-year-old was born in Russia, and spent the first five years of his life there.

As a result he speaks Russian — as well as Hebrew and English, according to a conversation he had for MIT Technology Review.

His family moved to Jerusalem when Sutskever was 5 years old.

Jerusalem, Israel
Sutskever moved to Israel from Russia when he was just 5.Nick Brundle Photography/Getty Images

Sutskever was raised in Jerusalem as a child up until he left the country to pursue computer science at the University of Toronto.

While in Canada, Sutskever worked in the Machine Learning Group on campus with one of AI's most prominent figures, Fast Company reported.

He studied with a "godfather of AI" as a graduate student at the University of Toronto.

Computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton stood outside a Google building
Computer scientist and Google Brain Vice President Geoffrey Hinton, who's known as a "godfather of AI."Noah Berger/Associated Press

Sutskever worked under Geoffrey Hinton, known as a godfather of AI by some, on neural networks.

Along with fellow grad student Alex Krizhevksy, Sutskever worked on the Hinton-led startup DNNresearch.

Sutskever, Krizhevsky, and Hinton authored the famous ImageNet white paper in 2012.

ImageNet Classification with Deep Convolutional
Neural Networks
Sutskever coauthored a deep -learning paper in 2012 that was seen as a game-changer in AI. Alex Krizhevsky, Ilya Sutskever, Geoffrey E. Hinton

The white paper co-authored by Sutskever is considered partly responsible for the "launch of the deep-learning revolution," according to a 2020 interview with Lex Fridman.

He began working at Google in 2013 after the company purchased his start-up.

Sutskever worked at Google for years before helping to found OpenAI.Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google bought DNNresearch in 2013, and Sutskever and Krizhevsky began living California while Hinton stayed behind in Toronto, BI previously reported.

About three months before the acquisition, Sutskever spent one month as a postdoc at Standford University before returning to Canada.

After DNNresearch was sold, Sutskever worked on Google's Brain Team for nearly three years before Elon Musk came calling, according to Fast Company.

Elon Musk said he had a tough time recruiting Sutskever to cofound OpenAI.

Elon Musk.
Elon Musk convinced Sutskever to join the founding team of OpenAI. Chesnot via Getty Images

While he was at Google, Sutskever was courted by Musk to join the founding team of OpenAI.

In an interview with CNBC, Musk referred to Sutskever as the "linchpin" of OpenAI's success.

But it took some convincing to get him to leave Google, Musk said.

At the end of 2015, Ilya Sutskever cofounded OpenAI with ex-CEO Sam Altman

Altman and Sutskever
Sutskever cofounded OpenAi with Sam Altman in 2015.JACK GUEZ

OpenAI, started as a research non-profit, aimed to develop artificial intelligence that would benefit humanity in a way that's "unconstrained by a need to generate financial return," according to the company's 2015 blog post.

In 2016, OpenAI developed the first of its large language models — which would later power ChatGPT.

Sam Altman at OpenAI's developer day
OpenAI developed its generative AI language models under Sutskever's leadership. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Under Sutskever's leadership, OpenAI developed the early versions of GPT, the models behind AI chatbot ChatGPT, and DALL-E, a model behind its text-to-image generator.

Sutskever said he spends the bulk of his days working.

Ilya Sutskever talking.
Sutskever said he leads a simple life of working and then going home. JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

"I lead a very simple life," the OpenAI cofounder told the MIT Technology Review. "I go to work; then I go home. I don't do much else. There are a lot of social activities one could engage in, lots of events one could go to. Which I don't."

Sutskever thought ChatGPT would be a flop when OpenAI launched the AI chatbot in November 2022.

OpenAI's ChatGPT
Sutskever said he wasn't confident ChatGPT would be successful. FLORENCE LO/Reuters

"When we made ChatGPT, I didn't know if it was any good," Sutskever told the MIT Tech Review. "I thought it was going to be so unimpressive that people would say, 'Why are you doing this? This is so boring!'"

ChatGPT reached over 100 million users within two months of its launch.

Sutskever has always been vocal about the belief that AGI, or artificial general intelligence, is on the horizon.

Ilya Sutskever
Sutskever has sounded the alarm around the development of AGI. JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

Sutskever said that AI will have the power to solve issues related to employment, disease and poverty, he told The Guardian.

At the same time, he said that AI will create new problems such as a surge in fake news and cyberattacks, automated AI weapons, and even "infinitely stable dictatorships."

So-called artificial general intelligence, or AGI, is at the heart of this technology.

"These models are very potent and they're becoming more and more potent," he said in March regarding AI models. "At some point it will be quite easy, if one wanted, to cause a great deal of harm with those models."

In July, OpenAI launched a "Superalignment" team that aims to ensure that AGI aligns with human interest.

Ilya Sutskever
Sutskever started an AI safety team at OpenAI to ensure the technology is in the human interest. JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

"Currently, we don't have a solution for steering or controlling a potentially superintelligent AI, and preventing it from going rogue," Sutskever and Jan Leike, the team's co-head, wrote in an OpenAI blog post in July.

In mid-November, OpenAI's board, which includes Sutskever, ousted ex-CEO Sam Altman from the company.

Sam Altman behind OpenAI phone
OpenAI's board, where Sutskever is a member, decided to oust ex-CEO Altman. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

But soon thereafter, Sutskever apparently had second thoughts.

"I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions," Sutskever said in an X post on Monday. "I never intended to harm OpenAI."

"I love everything we've built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company," he wrote.

Sutskever hinted at possible tension building up between him and Altman.

Sam Altman and Ilya Sutskever
Tensions reportedly brewed between Sutskever and Altman prior to the ex-CEO's ousting. JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

There may have been signs of trouble before the shocking ousting of Altman was announced on Friday.

"When you have an organization like OpenAI that's moving at a fast pace and pursuing ambitious goals, tension is inevitable," Sutskever told MIT Technology Review in September.

He didn't immediately return a request for comment on Monday made through OpenAI.

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