On Nov. 29, OpenAI reinstated Sam Altman as CEO after a tumultuous week at the ChatGPT maker. According to OpenAI’s blog post, a “non-voting observer for Microsoft” will join OpenAI’s board. Microsoft licenses OpenAI’s technology and holds a 49 percent stake in OpenAI’s for-profit branch.
The new board is made up of chair Bret Taylor, Larry Summers and Adam D’Angelo. Mira Murati, who was briefly named interim CEO, will return to her role as CTO. Greg Brockman will reprise his position as company president.
“Bret, Larry, and Adam will be working very hard on the extremely important task of building out a board of diverse perspectives, improving our governance structure and overseeing an independent review of recent events,” Altman wrote in a memo shared with OpenAI employees and the public on Nov. 29.
Altman’s sudden removal on Friday, Nov. 22 sparked conversation about tension between OpenAI’s board’s nonprofit status and the for-profit company’s lucrative generative AI products like ChatGPT.
- Altman reinstated
- Altman ‘not consistently candid’ with board
- Industry reactions to the change
- Altman’s high-profile role in the tech industry
The new board is the result of a week of behind-the-scenes changes at OpenAI. On Nov. 17, the board of directors of ChatGPT maker OpenAI, Inc. announced they removed cofounder and CEO Sam Altman as the company’s CEO and from the board of directors. They planned for Altman to be replaced by interim CEO Emmett Shear, formerly CEO of live video platform Twitch.
On Nov. 20, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced Altman, Brockman and unnamed OpenAI “colleagues” would join Microsoft. The group would “lead a new advanced AI research team.”
By Nov. 22, Altman was planning to return to OpenAI under an “agreement in principle.”
“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,” Altman wrote on X on Nov. 22. “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.”
Emmet Shear, who was briefly named interim CEO of OpenAI, said on X on Nov. 22 that he is “deeply pleased by this result, after ~72 very intense hours of work” and that Altman’s return “was the pathway that maximized safety alongside doing right by all stakeholders involved.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said on Nov. 22 he, Altman and Brockman have talked and “We are 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.”
On Monday, over 700 of OpenAI’s 770 employees planned to quit in solidarity with Altman.
Altman ‘not consistently candid’ with board
The board of OpenAI — which consisted at the time of OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, independent directors Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, and Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology’s Helen Toner — was blunt with their words regarding why they removed Altman.
“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,” OpenAI representatives wrote in a statement. “The board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI.”
Following the announcement, Altman posted on X (formerly Twitter): “i loved my time at openai. it was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. most of all i loved working with such talented people. will have more to say about what’s next later.”
“OpenAI was deliberately structured to advance our mission: to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all humanity,” the board of directors said in the statement. “The board remains fully committed to serving this mission. We are grateful for Sam’s many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI. At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward.”
ArsTechnica sources alleged Altman’s removal may have come from conflict between Altman and OpenAI Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever.
In internal documents from OpenAI acquired by Axios, chief operating officer Brad Lightcap said Altman’s firing “took us all by surprise.”
“We can say definitively that the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices,” Lightcap wrote. “This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.”
Industry reactions to the change
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella posted on X on Nov. 17: “As you saw at Microsoft Ignite this week, we’re continuing to rapidly innovate for this era of AI, with over 100 announcements across the full tech stack — from AI systems, models, and tools in Azure, to Copilot. Most importantly, we’re committed to delivering all of this to our customers while building for the future. We have a long-term agreement with OpenAI with full access to everything we need to deliver on our innovation agenda and an exciting product roadmap; and remain committed to our partnership, and to Mira and the team. Together, we will continue to deliver the meaningful benefits of this technology to the world.”
In a reply to Altman on X on Nov. 20, Nadella outlined his philosophy of how ex-OpenAI personnel might operate within Microsoft: “We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to give founders and innovators space to build independent identities and cultures within Microsoft, including GitHub, Mojang Studios, and LinkedIn, and I’m looking forward to having you do the same.”
“I took this job because I believe that OpenAI is one of the most important companies currently in existence,” Shear posted on X on Nov. 20. Shear also stated he plans to “hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report;” take feedback from employees, partners, investors and customers; and “reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force to drive results for our customers.”
Arun Chandrasekaran, distinguished vice president and analyst for generative AI and cloud at Gartner, noted on Nov.20 that the shakeup lead to questions such as “What would be the key goals for OpenAI considering this change?”
“The fact that Microsoft were able to convince Sam (Altman) and Greg (Brockman) to join them rather than start their own company may be an indication of the degree of autonomy and funding Microsoft may be willing to commit,” Chandrasekaran said.
If Altman brings a significant amount of OpenAI’s workforce and brain power to Microsoft, more questions will arise, Chandrasekaran said, namely how the combined team will balance trade-offs between speed, quality and safety and whether an OpenAI splinter group can work independently within Microsoft.
Altman’s high-profile role in the tech industry
As CEO of OpenAI, Altman has shaped much of the conversation about enterprise technology since the public release of ChatGPT in November 2022. The proliferation of generative AI has led to voluntary commitments and an executive order from the U.S. government, and regulatory changes across the world. Altman was part of a closed-door discussion in Washington D.C. in September.
Note: This article was updated with posts from Altman and Nadella, analysis from Gartner, and new information as the story developed.
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