Sam Altman returns to OpenAI in a bizarre reversal of fortunes

Nov 22, 2023, 10:00 AM

Samuel Altman, here on May 16, has agreed to return to lead OpenAI.
Mandatory Credit:	Win McNamee/G...

Samuel Altman, here on May 16, has agreed to return to lead OpenAI. Mandatory Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

New York (CNN) — Sam Altman has agreed to return to lead OpenAI, the company said in a Tuesday post on X, just days after his surprise ouster as chief executive sparked an employee revolt that threatened to undermine what has been the leading company in the fledgling artificial intelligence industry.

“We have reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board,” the company said, adding that the board will be chaired by Bret Taylor, a former co-CEO of Salesforce. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers will also join the board, alongside existing director, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo.

“We are collaborating to figure out the details,” it said.

In his own post on X, formerly Twitter, Altman wrote that he is “looking forward” to returning to OpenAI and building on the firm’s “strong partnership” with Microsoft, which is the ChatGPT maker’s biggest financial backer.

The announcement appears to bring to an end days of chaos for the AI industry that included negotiations over who should lead OpenAI and how the firm should be run, as well as broader discussions about just how fast the arms race to develop AI technology should be moving.

The details of Altman’s firing and re-hiring remain murky. In its announcement Friday, OpenAI claimed that Altman had been insufficiently “candid” with the board.

That ambiguous language sent the rumor mill flying. But a key factor in Altman’s ouster was the presence of tensions between Altman, who favored pushing AI development more aggressively, and members of the original OpenAI board, who wanted to move more cautiously, according to CNN contributor Kara Swisher, who spoke to sources knowledgeable about the crisis.

As of Monday morning, Nadella had announced that Altman, along with fellow OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman, would be joining Microsoft to lead a new AI research division. OpenAI said it had hired former Twitch chief Emmett Shear as interim CEO.

But then hundreds of OpenAI employees, nearly the company’s entire staff, threatened to leave, potentially for Microsoft, if the company’s board didn’t resign and reinstate Altman as CEO.

It’s unclear how Shear will be affected by Altman’s return. Posting on X, Shear wrote: “I am deeply pleased by this result, after (some) 72 very intense hours of work … I’m glad to have been a part of the solution.”

Brockman is also returning to OpenAI, according to his post on X.

Ultimately, Microsoft and Altman appear to be the big winners from the dust-up: Altman will continue leading the firm he helped to found, now with a board that is, in theory, more supportive of his vision.

And Microsoft has wrested more control over the company it invested billions in to help bolster its ambitions in developing AI, which many in Silicon Valley think will be the most important wave of technological advancement in the coming decades.

“We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said on X. “We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance.”

Altman’s vision to quickly roll out and commercialize AI tools also appears to have won out.

Publicly, Altman has long cautioned about risks posed by AI, and he has pledged to lawmakers and customers that he would move OpenAI forward responsibly.

“Is [AI] gonna be like the printing press that diffused knowledge, power and learning widely across the landscape that empowered ordinary, everyday individuals that led to greater flourishing, that led above all to greater liberty?” he said in a May Senate subcommittee hearing pressing for regulation. “Or is it gonna be more like the atom bomb — huge technological breakthrough, but the consequences (severe, terrible) continue to haunt us to this day?”

But inside the company, Altman had been pushing to bring products to market more quickly and to sell them for a profit.

Altman announced a few weeks ago at OpenAI’s first-ever developer day that the company would make tools available so anyone could create their own version of ChatGPT. OpenAI has also worked with Microsoft to roll out ChatGPT-like technology across Microsoft’s products.

OpenAI and iPhone designer Jony Ive had also reportedly been in talks to raise $1 billion from Japanese conglomerate SoftBank for an AI device to replace the smartphone.

— CNN’s Juliana Liu and Diksha Madhok contributed reporting.

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Sam Altman returns to OpenAI in a bizarre reversal of fortunes