Sam Altman’s unexpected firing as CEO of OpenAI was surprisingly short, with the company and the high-profile executive confirming Wednesday that he is returning and now has a reconfigured board of directors to work with.
Ongoing negotiations and an overhaul of the board resulted in Altman being gone from OpenAI for all of five days, during which time he was – briefly – hired along with Chairman and President Greg Brockman by Microsoft to head up a new AI unit while OpenAI – briefly – brought on ex-Twitch boss Emmett Shear as interim CEO.
In a flurry of social media and blog posts early Wednesday, OpenAI, Altman and Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella confirmed that Altman will again assume the OpenAI CEO position.
His abrupt firing by the board November 17 set off a chain of events that include the resignation of Brockman and several scientists and threats to do so by hundreds of employees throughout the company, putting the company that has been at the forefront of the rapidly expanding generative AI space since releasing the ChatGPT chatbot a year ago in a suddenly precarious position.
It also put Microsoft into a difficult position. The tech and cloud provider giant has been OpenAI’s top backer, investing more than $10 billion in the company, taking a stake in it, and planting OpenAI’s AI technologies throughout its own product and services portfolio.
A New Board in Tow
In a post on X (formerly Twitter), OpenAI announced Altman’s return and a “new initial board” that will be led by ex-Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor as chair, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and Adam D’Angelo, CEO of social question-and-answer site Quora and a holdover from the previous board. However, the company also signaled that there are things that still need to be ironed out at the company.
“We are collaborating to figure out the details,” the company wrote. “Thank you so much for your patience through this.”
In a message on X and a post on Nadella’s blog, Altman wrote, “i love openai, and everything i’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together. when i decided to join msft on sun evening, it was clear that was the best path for me and the team. with the new board and w satya’s support, i’m looking forward to returning to openai, and building on our strong partnership with msft.”
Brockman also is coming back, he wrote on X: “Returning to OpenAI & getting back to coding tonight.”
Microsoft Gives a Thumbs Up
Microsoft comes away from all this with a stronger footing in OpenAI affairs. Nadella, who had questioned the process used by the old board to fire Altman, wrote that he was “encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board.”
“We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance,” he wrote. “Sam, Greg and I have talked and agreed they have a key role to play along with the OAI leadership team in ensuring OAI continues to thrive and build on its mission. We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners.”
Shear, after his exceptionally brief stint as interim CEO, wrote on X that he was happy with the outcome after about “72 very intense hours of work.”
“Coming into OpenAI, I wasn’t sure what the right path would be. This was the pathway that maximized safety alongside doing right by all stakeholders involved. I’m glad to have been a part of the solution,” he wrote.
Days of Drama
Details of the events leading up to Altman’s firing – which surprised everyone involved, with Altman, Brockman and others being given less than an hour’s heads up before the announcement was made and even Microsoft being informed just moments before the rest of the world found out – Brockman’s resignation, and the eventually broad leadership changes at OpenAI are still trickling out.
In announcing Altman’s firing, the previous board wrote that the decision was made following 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,” adding that the board had lost confidence in him. There were no further details.
There were also reports that some on the board and within the company – including co-founder and Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, whose duties include limiting the harmful impact of AI on society – that Altman, Brockman and others were pushing the development of OpenAI’s technologies so fast that it was outpacing the necessary controls that need to be in place to ensure that AI can be used safely.
The firing came soon after OpenAI’s inaugural DevDay developer conference, where Altman unveiled GPT-4 Turbo – a more powerful version of its latest AI model – and the ability for organizations to create custom versions of ChatGPT. Altman also told journalists that the company is working on GPT-5 and that he was hoping for more Microsoft investment to accelerate the development artificial general intelligence (AGI), which is the point where AI can learn, comprehend and perform as well as humans, which worries some scientists in the field.
It was Sutskever who texted Altman November 16 about the board meeting the next day, when he was told of his firing. However, after three days of turmoil and blowback at the company, Sutskever wrote on X, “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. 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 didn’t comment on Altman coming back to the company, though on Wednesday he reposted the X message from OpenAI about the new board and posts from Altman and Brockman about their return.