Sam Altman is CEO of OpenAI once again. The return of the influential AI startup’s co-founder caps a chaotic four-days that saw two replacement CEOs, Altman’s potential transition to Microsoft, and threats of mass resignation from nearly all of the company’s employees. Altman’s return to OpenAI will coincide with a shakeup within the company’s nonprofit arm board of directors.
Silicon Valley’s pre-Thanksgiving saga started on November 17, when OpenAI’s board suddenly announced Altman’s departure after alleging the 38-year-old entrepreneur “was not consistently candid in his communications with the board, hindering its ability to exercise its responsibilities.”
The move shocked not only shocked industry insiders and investors, but executive-level employees at the company, as well. OpenAI’s president Greg Brockman announced his resignation less than three hours after news broke, while the startup’s chief operating officer described his surprise in a November 18 internal memo.
“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,” he wrote at the time.
A flurry of breathless headlines ensued, naming first one, then another CEO replacement as rumors began circulating that Altman would join Microsoft as the CEO of its new AI development team. Microsoft previously invested over $13 billion, and relies on the company’s tech to power its growing suite of AI-integrated products.
Just after midnight on November 22, however, Altman posted to X his intention to return to OpenAI alongside a reorganized board of directors that will include previous members such former White House adviser and Harvard University President Larry Summers, as well as former Quora CEO and early Facebook employee Adam D’Angelo. This is just what happened. Entrepreneur Tasha McCauley, OpenAI chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, and director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology Helen Toner are no longer board members.
“[E]verything i’ve [sic] done over the past few days has been in service of keep this team and its mission together,” Altman wrote on the social media platform owned by former OpenAI executive Elon Musk. Altman added he looks forward to returning and “building on our strong partnership” with Microsoft.
Although concrete explanations behind the attempted corporate coup remain unconfirmed, it appears members of the previous board believed Altman was “pushing too far, too fast” in their overall goal to create a safe artificial general intelligence (AGI), a term referring to AI that is comparable to, or exceeds, human capacities. Many of AI’s biggest players believe it is their ethical duty to steer the technology towards a future that benefits humanity instead of ending it. Critics have voiced multiple, repeated concerns over Silicon Valley’s approach, ethos, and rationality.