By John Koblin, Kevin Granville and Jason Karaian
The abrupt ouster of Sam Altman on Friday as CEO of OpenAI, one of the world’s most prominent artificial intelligence companies and the maker of ChatGPT, set off a head-spinning series of twists that culminated late Tuesday with Altman’s reinstatement at the company he founded and pledges to overhaul the way OpenAI is run.
The turmoil highlighted an unresolved debate over AI, which many see as the most important new technology since web browsers but also a potential source of danger if misused.
Here’s what you need to know about Altman’s departure, his return and what could happen next.
What kicked this off?
On Friday, Altman was dismissed as OpenAI’s CEO. A dispute with a colleague appears to have played a role.
Ilya Sutskever, a board member who founded OpenAI with Altman and several others, was said to be growing alarmed that the company’s technology could pose a significant risk and that Altman was not paying close enough attention to the potential harms. He and three other members of OpenAI’s six-member board decided to dismiss Altman.
The board was tight-lipped about its reasons, noting only that Altman “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board.” Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president, who along with Altman also served on the company’s board, quit in protest.
Five days of chaos ensued.
The firing led to confusion among employees at OpenAI and distress among the company’s investors. Microsoft, which has invested $13 billion in the company, was said to be particularly alarmed and with other investors pressed the board over the weekend to reinstate Altman, without success.
On Sunday evening, after 48 hours of furious negotiations over the company’s future, OpenAI’s board said it would stand by its decision and named the second interim chief in two days: Emmett Shear, a former executive at Twitch, would succeed Mira Murati, a longtime OpenAI executive who had been appointed interim chief Friday.
Late Sunday, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief, announced that he intended to hire Altman and Brockman, to lead an advanced AI research team at the tech giant.
By Monday morning, almost all of OpenAI’s nearly 800 employees had signed a letter saying they might quit to join Microsoft unless the startup rehired Altman and all of the company’s board members resigned.
After all that, Sam Altman returned.
Late Tuesday, OpenAI announced an “agreement in principle” for Altman to return as CEO of OpenAI, the culmination of the campaign waged by his allies, employees and investors. Brockman also returned to the company. “We are so back,” he posted on X, along with a selfie in front of a crowd of OpenAI employees, who celebrated in the company’s office.
Altman and Brockman rejoin a changed company, starting with the board that ousted them.
Who’s in and who’s out on OpenAI’s board.
OpenAI now has a fundamentally different, three-member board. The company described the reshuffle as a “new initial board,” suggesting more members may be coming.
Nadella of Microsoft said that he was “encouraged” by the changes, calling it a “first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance.”
— Bret Taylor, the former co-CEO of Salesforce, an enterprise software company, will serve as OpenAI’s chair. Taylor is also the former chair of Twitter and was in the middle of last year’s clashes with Elon Musk, who initially agreed to acquire Twitter and then tried to back out of the deal. (Musk was a founder of OpenAI in 2015 but left the company three years later.)
— Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury secretary, Harvard professor and veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, remains a prominent economic voice in Washington.
— Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, who was a major player in the ouster of Altman last week.
— Tasha McCauley, an entrepreneur, computer scientist and adjunct senior management scientist at the Rand Corp. She has ties to the rationalist and effective altruist movements, a community that is deeply concerned that AI could one day destroy humanity.
— Helen Toner, a director of strategy at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. She also has links to the rationalist and effective altruist movements and had attracted Altman’s scorn with a paper she had co-written recently. Altman complained that the research paper seemed to criticize OpenAI’s efforts to keep its AI technologies safe.
— Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora, the question-and-answer site. He was among those who pushed Altman out but then over the weekend led the talks to bring him back, according to two people in touch with the board.
What does this mean for AI?
The upheaval at Open AI highlighted an industry split between so-called doomers, who say the technology is moving too quickly, and others who argue it can make lifesaving enhancements.
More than 1,000 tech leaders signed a letter in March calling for a pause in the development of AI’s most advanced systems, saying the tools have “profound risks to society and humanity.”
Altman, who did not sign that letter, has urged responsible management of AI while also promoting the technology and in recent months pitched ideas to investors and others.