Week in Review - OpenAI fires CEO Sam Altman, Airbnb acquires GamePlanner.AI, and Epic battles Google over antitrust

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By Kyle Wiggers

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Howdy, folks, and welcome to Week in Review (WiR), TechCrunch's newsletter that recaps the major tech industry happenings over the past week (or so). Microsoft's Ignite conference, where the tech giant pitched its vision of a "copilot"-powered future, flooded the channels midweek. But there was plenty of note besides.

In this edition of WiR, we take a look at OpenAI CEO Sam Altman's unexpected firing, Humane's strange — and perhaps overambitious — Ai Pin, the shutdown of the popular video chat service Omegle, Airbnb acquiring the secret firm of a Siri co-founder, and Amazon launching a discounted health plan. We also cover the watermelon emoji being used as a symbol of political unity on social media, electric air taxi testing in New York City, the ongoing Epic-Google antitrust case and driverless car company Cruise's worsening woes.

It's a lot to get to — so let's hop to it. But first, a reminder to sign up here to receive WiR in your inbox every Saturday if you haven't already done so.

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Image Credits: Brian Heater

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman fired: In a surprising turn of events, Sam Altman has been fired from OpenAI, the AI startup behind ChatGPTDALL-E 3GPT-4 and other highly capable generative AI systems. In a post on OpenAI's official blog, the company wrote that Altman's departure followed a "deliberative review process by the board" that concluded that Altman "wasn't consistently candid in his communications" with other board members, "hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities." OpenAI CTO Mira Murati will take over as interim CEO.

The Ai Pin in person: Brian checked out the Ai Pin, a curious new product from Apple-veteran-backed, well-funded startup Humane. He writes that the matchbook-sized device, which features a laser system for projecting UI elements onto surfaces and a mic and speaker array for responding to voice commands, feels “very early days” — and that the price ($699) and mandatory subscription ($24 per month) doesn’t help. Still, it’s clear that a lot of care went into the product, he adds.

Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra earn their name: In other hardware news, Brian test-drove Bose’s new QuietComfort Ultra headphones, which start at $429. In his estimation, Bose has created some of the most comfortable and best-sounding headphones on the market — coupled with best-in-class noise cancelation. That’s high praise for Bluetooth headphones.

Omegle shuts down: Omegle, the popular online chat service that let people connect and talk with strangers (and that was all the rage in this writer’s high school days), has shut down after more than 14 years. Founder and CEO Leif K-Brooks cited growing misuse of the platform, including people committing “unspeakably heinous crimes.” But a subsequent Wired report suggests Omegle was forced to shut down by a lawsuit from a sexual abuse survivor.

Airbnb buys Siri co-founder’s firm: This week Airbnb acquired a secretive AI startup, GamePlanner.AI for around $200 million, CNBC says. GamePlanner was co-founded by Adam Cheyer, who famously helped co-launch the startup Siri, which Apple acquired and whose technology became the basis for Apple's AI-powered Siri assistant. In announcing the acquisition, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky hinted that the 12-person startup combines expertise in AI and design toward crafting AI-driven experiences — sort of like an AI-focused consultancy.

Amazon launches new health plan: Amazon announced this week a One Medical membership benefit for Prime members, giving them access to healthcare services for $9 per month or $99 annually. (Recall that Amazon snatched up One Medical, a primary care tech provider, in February for around $3.9 billion.) Originally $199 a year, members are saving $100 on One Medical's 24/7 virtual care services with the new plan, Lauren writes, as well as benefiting from in-person visits at locations across the U.S.

The watermelon emoji, a symbol of protest: Morgan writes about how the watermelon emoji has a complicated history in Palestinian protests online. The watermelon motif as a political statement became commonplace after the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, but watermelon imagery is especially prevalent this year as Israeli officials enforce bans on the Palestinian flag — and amid worldwide calls for a ceasefire in wake of Israel's response to the Hamas attack.

Air taxis hover above NYC: Joby Aviation and Volocopter gave the public a vivid glimpse of what the future of aviation might look like this past weekend, with both companies performing brief demonstration flights of their electric aircraft in New York City. The demonstration flights were conducted during a press conference last Sunday, during which New York City mayor Eric Adams announced that the city would electrify two of the three heliports located in Manhattan.

Epic and Google duke it out: Though Match settled its antitrust case with Google over Play Store fees for north of $300 million, Fortnite maker Epic Games proceeded to take its case to trial this week, Sarah reports. The game maker argues that Google's commissions on in-app purchases are anticompetitive and that Google has exerted its power in the marketplace to unfairly compete by negotiating special deals with developers and manufacturers running their own app stores.

Cruise takes a detour: Cruise, the GM self-driving car subsidiary, this week started laying off contingent workers after pausing all of its driverless operations. This comes after it lost key commercial permits that allowed it to operate a robotaxi service in San Francisco and halted production on its purpose-built Origin autonomous car. Cruise also suspended its employee stock program as GM takes a more active role in shaping the safety culture at the company, inserting one of its execs to head up Cruise’s legal and policy, communications and finance teams.

Uber combats unfair deactivations: Uber has introduced a feature geared toward addressing the issue of unfair deactivations that ride-hail and delivery drivers often face. Starting Monday across the U.S., the company has been rolling out a technology that identifies riders or Uber Eats customers who consistently give bad ratings or feedback with the intent of getting a refund.

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Audio

Need a podcast to pass the hours, perhaps during Thanksgiving prep? (This writer shall be baking — possibly an ube babka, inspired by his loving Filipino partner.) Well, you’re in luck. TechCrunch’s got you covered — there’s plenty to add to the playlist from TC’s library.

This week on Equity, the crew talked about the Google search-related antitrust case that’s currently ongoing and what it could mean for startups.

Found featured two conversations all about sustainability in fashion from TechCrunch Disrupt 2023. In the first, three guests — Jim Ajioka from Colorifix, Beth Esponnette from unspun and Julie Willoughby from Circ — spoke with Harri about recent trends. In the second, Morgan interviewed Jemima Bunbury from Blend, a curated fashion app that’s changing the way people shop online.

And over on Chain Reaction, Stani Kulechov, the founder of Avara, spoke about the Aave protocol, Avara’s platform-focused stablecoin GHO and its social network protocol Lens. 

TechCrunch+

TC+ subscribers get access to in-depth commentary, analysis and surveys — which you know if you're already a subscriber. If you're not, consider signing up. Here are a few highlights from this week:

Compliance, a moneymaker: German software company EQS Group is being taken private by Thoma Bravo for about €400 million ($435.1 million) in a deal that represents a massive 53% premium over its pre-announcement value. Alex explores what it could mean for quite a number of startups operating in the regulatory tech market.

What it means to be human in a world of AI: Haje reflects on the meaning of art — and why we’re upset that robots are making it now — in light of pushback against generative AI, particularly art-generating AI like OpenAI’s DALL-E 3 and Midjourney.

The time to triage is over: While the fundraising market still looks bleak for startups, continuing to triage isn’t sustainable for their investors, Rebecca reports. VCs are spending all of their attention and capital on helping their existing portfolio companies ride out the tougher fundraising market — but funds aren’t set up to support this strategy.

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