OpenAI in the crosshairs: Scarlett Johansson's scathing statement, mass exodus of executives are among the company’s latest woes

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaking at a conference on Tuesday. (Jason Redmond / AFP)

OpenAI, the company known for developing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology, was the subject of a scathing statement by actress Scarlett Johansson this week, in which she expressed “anger” and “disbelief” to hear a voice “eerily similar” to her own used — without her approval — in a demo of the company’s new speaking feature on its popular AI-powered chatbot, ChatGPT.

The Johansson controversy follows a string of high-profile resignations by OpenAI executives. The company previously has seen multiple employees quitting within weeks of each other. The most recent departure, Jan Leike, said in a May 17 post on X that he disagreed with OpenAI’s leadership and “core priorities,” especially regarding safety.

OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, was ousted from the company in November 2023 but rejoined the board of directors in March, following a legal review.

OpenAI launched in 2015 with a promise to build “safe and beneficial” AI technology and policies.

From 2020 to 2022, it launched a series of AI-powered models that could be used by the public, including DALL-E — which could turn any text into digital images, inspiring many online memes — and ChatGPT, its free AI chatbot that became one of the fastest-growing apps in history. ChatGPT is commonly credited with introducing AI to the general public and helping make OpenAI a household name.

Altman, 39, was one of the founders of OpenAI and has been the CEO since 2019. He has been called “the Oppenheimer of AI” by several publications, a reference to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who created the atomic bomb.

Altman's ouster last was a surprise to many people in the AI industry.

In a press release, OpenAI said, “Mr. Altman’s departure follows a deliberative review process by the board, which concluded that he was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities. The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”

Following backlash from other OpenAI employees, which included an open letter to the board in which nearly half the company’s staff threatened to quit, Altman was reinstated days after being fired.

Read more about the chaos surrounding Altman’s firing and rehiring from AP.

In February, one of the founders of OpenAI, Andrej Karpathy, announced his departure. In early May, vice president of people Diane Yoon and head of nonprofit and strategic initiatives Chris Clark also announced that they were leaving the company.

Weeks later, chief scientist Ilya Sutskever wrote in an X post that he would be leaving OpenAI for another project, which he didn’t name. Sutskever had voted to remove Altman from the CEO position in 2023, citing concerns that Altman was advancing the company’s AI technology too quickly.

Hours after Sutskever resigned, Jan Leike, an executive who worked with Sutskever on projects regarding the safeguarding of AI, announced his resignation. In a series of posts on X, Leike described “building smarter-than-human machines” was an “inherently dangerous endeavor” that wasn’t getting the “crucial research” and “safety culture” that it deserved at the company.

Sutskever’s and Leike’s resignations came on the heels of the release of OpenAI’s newest AI model, GPT-4o — an AI-powered chatbot that now includes speaking capabilities, known as Sky.

On May 20, actress Johansson published a statement saying she was “shocked” and “angered” to hear GPT-4o’s voice, referred to as Sky, after several close friends and family members pointed out that it sounded like her voice.

In the post, Johansson revealed that she had met with Altman in September to discuss hiring her to voice Sky, not unlike her role in the 2013 Spike Jonze film, “Her,” one of Altman’s favorite movies.

Johansson says she ultimately declined the offer. In her statement, she called Sky’s voice “eerily similar” to her own and noted she had hired legal counsel to demand an explanation from OpenAI.

“In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these are questions that deserve absolute clarity,” Johansson wrote.

“The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson,” Altman said in an email to the Washington Post. “We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

OpenAI said that it has since paused Sky and published a blog post saying it had used five voice actors to create the voices for its AI products.

The latest backlash against Sky comes amid several other lawsuits and investigations involving OpenAI. They include: