Talks to bring back Sam Altman continue at OpenAI

Just four days after he was fired by the board of artificial-intelligence pioneer OpenAI, former chief executive Sam Altman was in negotiations Tuesday for his return to the company, as the board appeared to bend under pressure from investors and employees.

Talks were focused on the management structure if Altman were to return as CEO, people familiar with the discussions told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Disagreements emerged over who would actually sit on OpenAI’s board if Altman did return. One person familiar with the situation said discussions were less about specific board members and more about creating a board that was “stable and well-intentioned.” Another person familiar with the matter said Altman would return only if the board members who fired him left.

Four board members, including three independent directors, were willing to bring Altman back as CEO and replace themselves, as long as the new board would have meaningful oversight over his future actions, according to a person familiar with the board’s proceedings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. The current board includes Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist who ousted Altman; Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Quora; Helen Toner, an AI and national security researcher at Georgetown University; and tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley.

Altman has been negotiating with D’Angelo and Emmett Shear, the former Twitch CEO who was named OpenAI’s interim CEO on Sunday night, according to a person familiar with proceedings. Altman is open to meeting with potential new directors suggested by the current board and is now considering the possibility of rejoining without a board seat, this person said.

The high-stakes Silicon Valley boardroom drama, which began with the abrupt firing on Altman on Friday, has exposed the intense battle for control of one of the most technologically advanced start-ups in the AI revolution. Under Altman, OpenAI had transformed from a nonprofit research lab into a moneymaking company with a potential valuation of close to $90 billion, and around 100 million users for its chatbot ChatGPT. The infighting between the board and senior leaders has widened the rift in the tech industry about who should have a say in how AI — which many people believe will change the world in the way electricity or the internet did — should be developed and governed.

The responsibility of OpenAI’s board is to develop supersmart AI for the benefit of humanity. But as the company took on more funding from Microsoft, its biggest investor, and a host of venture capitalists, critics said it had lost its mission. The management shake-up leaves the future of OpenAI and its place in the AI industry in doubt, analysts said.

Sam Altman and the chaos at OpenAI

Employees and investors had hoped Altman might return Sunday, but the weekend ended with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announcing Altman was joining Microsoft. On Monday, both Nadella and Altman signaled that he could still return. “I’m open to both options,” Nadella said in a Monday interview with CNBC.

“We are all going to work together some way or other,” Altman said in a post Monday morning on X, formerly Twitter. Both leaders took pains to assure customers and investors that OpenAI and Microsoft, which relies on OpenAI’s technology for its own AI products, would continue providing services despite the boardroom chaos.

The latest developments come amid a dizzying several days for OpenAI that has put the future of the firm in doubt, a drastic change of fate for a company that until just days ago was considered one of the most promising start-ups in Silicon Valley.

On Friday, its board abruptly removed Altman from his role as chief executive, saying he had not been “consistently candid” in his communications. On Saturday, OpenAI executives told employees they were shocked and confused, as well, and hadn’t gotten a clear answer from the board on why it had fired Altman. Executives assured employees that it wasn’t because of financial or security problems.

On Sunday night, OpenAI’s board said it would stand by its ouster of Altman and appointed Shear as interim CEO. Shear is the co-founder of Twitch, a popular video game streaming platform. But in yet another twist, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that Shear was telling associates that he, too, would quit if the board did not provide more specific reasons for firing Altman.

Nearly all employees signed a letter threatening to quit unless the current board resigned and reappointed Altman. The letter included among the signatories Sutskever, a key member of the company’s four-person board, who voted to oust Altman. Sutskever said on X he regretted his “participation” in Altman’s firing.

“Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI,” the employees wrote in the letter. “We are unable to work for or with people that lack competence, judgment and care for our mission and employees.”

Kevin Scott, the chief technology officer at Microsoft, indicated Tuesday on X that the situation is still in flux, noting that if OpenAI employees end up departing the company, they would have jobs at Microsoft that match their compensation.

At OpenAI’s San Francisco office, employees who had threatened to quit waited for news of a change in the situation. The company has reassured its customers, which include thousands of start-ups and bigger companies, that business was continuing as usual. As if to prove the point, the company announced it would make OpenAI’s voice features available to all users for free. Before this, it was available only to paying users.

Employees are still working together closely and supporting each other, said one worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. They are fueling themselves on DoorDash takeout deliveries, a person familiar with the matter said. The bill “is … sizable for sure,” the person added, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

A spokesman for DoorDash declined to provide a total amount, citing customer privacy.

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