The leadership shakeup at OpenAI on Friday shocked the world, with the company’s board firing CEO Sam Altman despite him becoming the face of artificial intelligence for many in Silicon Valley and beyond. But it’s also brought to the fore Mira Murati, the chief technology officer suddenly thrust into the role of OpenAI’s interim CEO.
Murati was already considered one of the most powerful women in business before the move. Fortune magazine featured her on the cover of its October/November issue about the “100 Most Powerful Women.”
Now she’ll be leading one of the world’s most important companies as it reshapes industries with increasingly powerful AI tools. A look at her unlikely background and impressive rise via her interview with Fortune gives us clues as to how she might lead OpenAI in her new role.
Before joining OpenAI in 2018, Murati had been working on AI applications at Tesla, playing a senior product manager role on the Model X. She described working at Elon Musk’s electric-vehicle maker as “a very formative moment—going through the whole experience of design and deployment of a whole vehicle.”
But, she added, “I was more interested in general intelligence. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen at that point, but I knew that even if we just got very close, the things we would build along the way would be incredible.”
With that in mind, the mission at OpenAI to develop AI tools that benefit humanity “really resonated with me,” she said.
But there was little in her childhood to suggest that Murati would end up at Tesla and OpenAI, two of the hottest companies in technology. First off, geography. Murati grew up in Albania as the Balkan country shifted from a totalitarian communist system to a more democratic government. Despite slow internet speeds, however, she was already looking for ways to apply technology to life’s biggest problems, and curious about the human brain works.
At age 16, she left for Canada, having been awarded a scholarship to attend an international school in Canada. From there, she earned an engineering degree at Dartmouth before joining Tesla.
As OpenAI’s CTO she’s been deeply involved, of course, in advancing the company’s AI technology. When Fortune met with her in OpenAI’s San Francisco office, she showed off a feature allowing users to simply talk to ChatGPT.
“Basically where this is all going is, it’s giving people the ability to interact with the technology in a way that’s very natural,” she said.
But Murati also takes AI safety very seriously.
Central to the leadership shakeup on Friday was the issue of AI safety, according to anonymous sources who spoke to Bloomberg, with OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever and others disagreeing with Altman on how quickly to commercialize generative AI capabilities.
Murati acknowledges the competition among AI companies, including OpenAI, to offer the latest and greatest features. But she said that while “competition is good because it can push advancement and progress,” she worries about “a race to the bottom on safety.”
She added that if AI competitors are motivated mainly by the competition and “losing sight of the risks and what’s at stake, that would be a huge problem.”
What’s particularly difficult, she noted, “is being able to predict the emerging capabilities and to get ahead of some of the deployment risks. Because at the end of the day, you need to institutionalize and operationalize these things, and they can’t just be policies and ideas.”
The goal at OpenAI, she reiterated, was to achieve artificial general intelligence (AGI)—a system that can match humans when faced with an unfamiliar task—in a way that’s beneficial and not harmful to society.
As she told Fortune, “Our goal is to get to AGI, and we want to get there in a way that makes sure that AGI goes well for humanity, and that we are building something that’s ultimately beneficial.”
She’ll now be playing an even larger role in making sure OpenAI reaches that goal.